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Rated: E · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #2190669
Up the Republic

Up the Republic

“Patience is the golden key. Everything else is the lock.”

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Republic of Veil’driel
City of Telminster

It was afternoon in Telminster, and bells proclaimed that the meeting of Parliament would soon close for the day. The building on the hill had wide arches and friezes resplendent, its mighty columns seeming to hold up the sky itself. It echoed with a song from below, and allowed its own notes, bounding down from the high domes that — not long ago — had entrapped the voices of great orators. The sun's light leapt between 11 hills, caught in reflection by painted glass panes and sheets of water that hung in delicate fountains. The men and women were adjourning from Solonea Hall now and the shouts, cane-raps, pacing and thunderous cries of the day had been replaced by laughter, as of comrades basking in mutual congratulations — the work done until dawn next lingered over the Republic of Veil'driel.

Aleister walked alone into the antechamber, dark walking-stick tapping against the checkerboard marble. He wore a coat and a blue tunic, well-cut to fit his form but simple, with only a silver fern to denote his station. He stepped lively through the throngs and was not missed, or counted himself not missed, until the golden rush of summer met his eye through the exit into the aboreal square.

Leaning at the top of the stairs, looking down a flight of forty or fifty, the way they had been since time immaterial, he breathed as though he could name every tree and flower and leave behind the pungent odor of legislation just by turning his back on it.

"Duchenne!" The man turned, his blue eyes half-lidded. "Praetor Duchenne!" He wanted to sigh and roll his eyes. Instead, there leapt such a spark into Aleister's face that no casual observer would say these men had spent the last eight hours in chamber together; and he jumped from the edge of the stairs and clapped one hand around the newcomer's shoulder, his cane balanced against his own knee, like two old friends meeting. "Praetor, you have done the country a great service."

Aleister’s grin was steady, easy as he addressed the men dressed all in black, their spokesman towering head and shoulders over him, and broader and older — not that it mattered, because he saw in their bespectacled eyes that these were men who had come to listen to him.

"I have done no more than what is expected. No more than I would expect from you. For we, gentlemen, are but mirrors, with no greater value than to reflect the will of those who depend on us."

"Well put, Praetor, well put," the speaker said, and the others murmured their assent. "But please, don't underestimate yourself. Had you not been standing here today, one in your place may not have made such a righteous decision."

"Righteous by half," he said, expression clouding. "It is not an easy thing to not take Outriders at their word, especially in light of all they have done for us since Citrine. But there is just too much confusion surrounding their story. Too many inconsistencies. Still, I understand how the issue is so passionately divisive, so prickly. Mark my word that I have acted my conscience. Only time will tell if it was right or not."

This hardly seemed to dampen their enthusiasm.

"You will see, my friend, that Veil'driel will honor you for your vote. The safety of the capital must come first. It is not difficult to see why you have had such a meteoric career, as you so often find yourself in the position of arguing so well and acting so decisively."

"My good friend," Duchenne echoed, his eyes scanning subtly behind his interrogators to see that so many of the others were already passing them, the bulk of their grand conversations brought down into the groves. "If my career has been predicated solely on the luck of casting one needed vote again and again, I should quit this place and become a gambler. We shall soon see if my silver was better spent at the gambling table or in this Security Consolidation Act that we are all so fond of."

It seemed like they didn't know what to say. So they laughed.

And then, quite unexpectedly, Aleister was alone.

He turned away and showed himself to a hallway that fanned left, its lighting more muted, the windows and walkways covered by trees that bloomed in powder blue and bluish purple. There was another pavilion, dark and severe, wide and round and paneled with wood, in the center of which had been enshrined a painting.

The man in it was a hero to the Veil'driel Parliament, and politicians in general. He had pitch black hair with eyes like a hawk and a nose to match. His forehead showed lines of worry, but his face was handsome and chiseled, the set of his shoulders proud. Light fell on him from above, both sides — the artist had made him serious and stoic, wearing the cloak of an Outrider of Veil'driel, with one hand resting upon his knee.

It was a portrait of Ailmar Duchenne, Aleister's father. He was revered for departing from the 500 year tradition of his family, forsaking halls of parliament for the Outrider Order. In truth, most of the politicians who honored his memory like this could not have even said what and Outrider was, or how they differed from any ordinary scout or soldier. Nor could they have precisely articulated the reasons why he caused them to daydream, but his death in The Looking Glass War, three decades earlier, sealed his legendary status as a beacon of sacrificing a life of comfort for service.

Aleister had only been 14-years-old at the time of his father's death, and he was now 5 years older than his father was when he died. For Aleister believed the politician obsession with his father lay more with fantasy than cherishing his memory. The idea of old men pouring over tedious paperwork, glancing out their chambers windows and pretending ... imagining that could be them.

Duchenne knelt before it and lowered his face.

"Well, father, it seems the pieces are almost in place." Aleister's eyes flicked up to the image, but it would stay the way it was, the watercolors strangely vivid. "Patience is the golden key. Everything else is the lock." His hand found its way into his coat, and he retrieved a red envelope from Lucas Reese. He already knew what it said, and that thought led to a nervous sigh. "But so many things are not what they seem, are they?"

He held the envelope against the light, tracing the edges with his finger.


When addressed, Aleister bolted upright in one motion and shoved the envelope into an interior pocket. His own forehead creased until it matched the man in the painting, and he replied to the man with flint in his voice: "What is it?"

"Praetor, you must not leave the hall." The guard was decked out in red and black, a short sword at his side. "There is a mob, they've surrounded the common mount, guards have been dispatched to disperse them."

"Guards?" His eyebrows quirked. "Belay those orders at once. I won't sit here and pretend to be struck dumb with fear of my fellow citizens. This mob. What's their grievance, and who speaks for them?"

"We don't know, sir."

Duchenne was striding out.

"Then hold the others here. It will go — and there will be no armed men following behind me." He stopped on his heel and pointed at a window. "Not unless you see my blood from that very window. Understood?"

"Praetor Duchenne. Please. If only you would—"

It was too late — he was already gone. The lone guard paced across the room, his gaze lifting to stare after Aleister, then dropping to the painting on its curtained dias. Shaking his head, he rubbed at his chin and wondered.

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There was a mob.

It was a very orderly mob. Men — Duchenne saw only men — had surrounded the common mount until no senator could possibly pass them. Some soldiers had already been dispatched before Aleister canceled the order, but for now they waited at the top of forty stairs more that led down into the city, their presumed foes milling below them. The troops were silent, their halberds braced against the ground, some of them bearing long shields. The lone man among them who wore no helmet paced back and forth behind the rest, as though he could count up each potential enemy and decide what each was worth.

The air was thick with rain.

"What’s the story here, captain?"

He turned absently.

"Unknown, sir. We can't get a statement from any one of them, and they will not let anyone pass."

Duchenne, now, began to pace himself, while the soldier remained at attention. He, too, looked down at the mob. They were just ordinary people, caked with dirt and bearing rakes and backhoes and other tools.

"Captain," he said. "You see that man wearing feathers around his neck?"

"I do."

"What about that one? See the ring on his finger is made of jade?"

"Yes, praetor. A wedding ring, maybe? Why?"

"I'm looking at the garb of all three provinces here before me. The feathers of birds that dwell in the east. Jade that comes from Bryce Valley in the south. And those tools look well-made. Northern craftsmanship." The color had drained from the captain's face. Duchenne continued. "These men look like they've traveled miles, from the Tri-State, to converge on this spot."

"The Tri-State, sir? You mean ... the provinces."

Aleister stiffened slightly.

"You can all it, or them, whatever you like, captain, but the simple fact is that we're completely surrounded by men who would disagree with your terminology. And there are exactly as many of them as would be needed to entrap us fully."

The soldier's hand was at his hilt.

"Yes, praetor. What shall we do, sir?"

"Not raise our hand in violence without knowing why." Aleister raised one shoulder. "Keep your men at the top of these stairs. I'll speak to them." He hardly waited for agreement, and the soldier, dumbfounded, watched as those further down the stairs stood aside to let him pass. When he had reached the bottom-most stairs, and could look the strangers in the eye, he cleared his throat and began to speak. "Who among you speaks for the rest?"

There was a shuffling, momentarily, and a man emerged from the crowd. He wore a broad hat and clothing just as travelworn as his companions, and his gray eyes were half-hidden by the mass of wrinkles that had collected around them. His face was sun-browned and haggard. It seemed like he would dissolve into dust when he raised his eyes and the first drop of rain struck, ran around the brim of his hat, and dropped onto his nose.

"In an ideal world, that would be you, Duchenne, but you're letting us down. Letting yerself down, too, while you're at it."

"I'm afraid you have me at a loss," Aleister said. "You know my name, good sir, but I lack yours; a state of affairs I would remedy before we act together to solve this problem.

He held out his hand.

The man did not take it.

​“My name is Burnhardt Stone, like the stones of them thar mountains.” He raised his hand to indicate, by proxy, the presence of the Bryce Mountain Range far in the distance, so cloaked by clouds and miles that they went unseen. “I may not have a famous name like yours, sir, but my family has been here just as long as yours, or longer — we’ve worked the land just as long as you’ve trod it – or longer. And I’m coming here to redress a grievance, and I will see to it that you listen.”

​Duchenne shrugged. The people, dozens upon dozens, at least a hundred, were watching in mute fascination.

“By all means. Let the one you feel has wronged you be the one to defend themselves. Who are they?”

​“You, sir.”

​It was all Aleister could do to keep from biting his lip.

​“And of what do I stand accused?”

​“You and First Consul Leverette have ignored the impending threat of a foreign army, leaving not only your borders exposed, but my land and the land of my neighbors here. We know what happened out at Lornda Manor, sir. And Bryce Valley and all before that. You fought a war against us to keep us from independence, to keep us from raising an army of our own. You call the Tri-State provinces and treat us as such. Yet, with this enemy cutting a swath through our lands, toward these cities and all these pretty doodads of yours, you offer us no protection. You vote against all measures to protect even yourself.”

​“Sir, the Helix Legions are in Sindell, where we have it on good authority the true threat to Ciridian lies. Indeed, despite claims to the contrary, we’ve no proof that this supposed invading army from across the sea even exists. All we have remaining here is the Praetorian Guard and law enforcement, and we can hardly afford to send them to Fairlawn, to the borderland of Westwood, or into the provinces to assist you. It’s a non-issue; it cannot be done.”

​“Then you listen to me, sir. We will all stand here until your fellowmen return to that chamber and make provision that our land and people be protected. Or we will sit here and siege this place by our breath and bones, ‘til we all lay piled at your feet.”

​There were a few cheers at that.

​“So you are saying you would all die for this land,” Duchenne answered. “Admirable; I would do the same. But still, I cannot sacrifice the safety of our cities and government by sending a force back to Westwood. It is not in my hands. Every man you see above you, and those besides who are absent, must vote yes or no on such matters.”

​“Then we wait until the rest are here, and you vote the right way,” Burnhardt said.

​“I’m afraid I can’t allow that.”

​And for a moment, all the world stood stock still.

​Duchenne descended down the last of the stairs and began to walk, looking this way and that at the people around him. Some were old, like Stone, but many were young and had lived hard, and there were women amongst them, too. Their hands were calloused and their feet were calloused and a lesser man would say their hearts were calloused.

​The low sound of a horn blown at the highest step caused them all to look up.

​“That horn is to tell the city,” Duchenne explained, “that the Solonea Hall is in danger. It seems you have brought down quite a stir, Mr. Stone, but you have offered no quarter but one I cannot possibly grant. It seems I am at a loss.” Stone smiled just a bit. ​“Therefore, let me offer you something instead.”

​“You have the courage of your father, Praetor Duchenne. Aye, I knew him for a time. And so I will listen to this offer, but I don’t see what that could be, my friend.”

​“Then let me paint you a picture,” the praetor said, leaning now a mere few inches from the mob’s foreman. “I shall grant to you refuge behind the Fairlawn City walls,” and his hand flicked to pick out a group, “and to you, and to you, and to you, and to anyone else who wishes it, for unless I miss my guess I see the lines and clans that run between you. And you shall have the protection of the 305th Timberland Sentinels in Westwood, and the slim remaining resources of the Outrider Order left behind. I also hereby suspend all clauses in the national Constitution of Veil’driel outlawing the provinces’ ability to make war as a means to settle disputes involving the state. The article stating: provincial armed forces with war potential will not be maintained is likewise, hereby suspended. Muster what you will. Take all measures you deem appropriate. We call the decade-old conflict between us the Grassland Campaign. You call it the Tri-State Civil War, but labels do not concern me. And the only words that come to my mind are sadness and regret when defining the fracture between us. This is all I can offer you. What is your answer?”

​Stone’s eyes widened. He wouldn’t look to either side, the rain dripping freely off his hat now, masking the sweat that had leapt out on his brow.

​“Well,” he said slowly. “I suppose.”

​“Excellent.” Duchenne reached out his hand again. “So we have an agreement.”

​Stone took it. After a moment, the praetor pulled away, and, with surprising grace, he leapt back upon the stairs. His hand, the same that had took that of Burnhardt Stone, rose so that the people could see a signet ring on one finger, which he slipped off with great care and cradled in his palm.

​“Would anyone among you unseat me from the Office of Praetor?”

​He heard the soldiers shuffling in their place behind him, and the commander stepped forward, muttering: “What are you up to, Duchenne?” One halberdier stepped forward, but the officer restrained him with a gesture. The people were mumbling, but none would step forward.

​“Would any among you take my place?” He held the ring up, and it glinted in the storm, the driving rain now plastering his black hair to his face. “This is the mark of my station; would any of you have it? I’ll freely give it!”

​Stone finally turned his back and retreated into the mass of his fellowmen.

​None of the others moved.

​“No? Then know this – there will be no injustice in Veil’driel or in the Tri-State while I breathe. And if anyone says they can challenge me, that they can do better than I, let them do so honorably and justly. I stake myself on justice, not on blood. I would rather die than betray my people.”

​Some of them were beginning to shuffle away. Stone reappeared in the ranks and shook his head, admitting that none among them would elevate themselves. Duchenne, with those final words, seemed to be addressing more than just the mob. It seemed … deeper somehow, more broad. He raced further up the steps, taking them two at a time. The captain met him halfway.

​“Congratulations, praetor. A little … unorthodox, perhaps, but … it seems the crisis is over.”

​“Nothing is over.” The young praetor quirked a brow. “Except maybe the past.” He spun on his heel, pointing down with the hand that had only moments ago held his mark of office. The ring had been firmly replaced on his finger. “You there! Stone!”

​The old farmer turned slowly. Some of the rest rumbled to a stop, but others kept moving, slogging away through the burbling mud. The storm had come up quickly, and without warning, and not a one wasn’t soaked already.

​The guards began to raise their halberds.

​“Send your fastest runner and gather up all those who’ve wandered off. None of you will walk out of here in the soaking rain. You’re all my guests now, to stay in the Gaetalian Hall until the storm abates. There will be provision and rest provided not just for tonight, but for your journey back. This is not an offer. For I will not take no for an answer.”

​The soldier who had almost advanced before turned to his captain.

​“Is this man insane? He just gave license for the Tri-State to rise again!”

​“He is either insane or a genius,” the captain said, distracted, still staring at Duchenne. “And in my experience, there isn’t much difference between the two.”

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Duchenne had changed into simpler garb and slipped out as soon as he could.

The worst weather had passed, and the only remnant of the storm was the sun reflecting off heavy clouds that made them burn like gashes in the sky. Haze rose hot off the cobblestones as Aleister walked the main street in the city's northern quarter, passing under the great shadow of the Ministry of Archive's stone spire. Cylindrical glass skywalks held together by spindles of gray steel led between the main building and the squat, brooding forms of its many warehouses. Men and women in bright colors hurried overhead without ever looking down at him.

​Further down the road, mismatched clusters of office buildings gave way to large, stucco-fronted longhouses lined with many benches. The doors were freshly painted. Many were capped with sculptures picked out in painstaking relief, animal figures hidden within intricate, interwoven shapes. Aleister caught sight of a bizarre beast, something halfway between a cat and rabbit, poised vigilantly on its hind-paws and looking out at him.

​Birds flapped about in the drying rain, pecking between the cobbles in search of small morsels of food. Aleister stood on the corner, watching a woman form pellets of bread with her long fingers and toss them out to where a flock was now gathering. Coming closer, he cleared his throat.

​“Outrider Talabray,” he said. “You look well.”

​She did not look up at him at first, but instead finished flicking a handful of bread pellets, one by one, to the birds. He expected to see anger in her eyes; instead it was emptiness there that gave him pause, clashing with the healthy glow that suffused her skin. She looked away before she spoke.

​“Praetor,” she said. “How'd you know where to find me?”

​“Reese,” he said, tapping his coat. “Got the red envelope here and everything.”

​Isabelle Talabray continued to tear bits from the hunk of bread beside her.

​“You could have sent someone else."

​“I could have,” he acknowledged. “But I wanted to come myself.”

​“Well, you got me here,” she said. “So what do you want?”

​“Not here,” Aleister said. “Where’s Relic?”

​“I don’t know. What do you want?”

​“The chance to explain what's really happening.”

​“I don't want to hear your lies,” she said. “Neither does Relic.”

Aleister came a little closer, sat on the bench beside her.

​“Iz,” he said, and she looked up at him with such suddenness, he stopped. “Isabelle. We’ve known each other since we were kids. And now I’m asking you to trust me, alright? Trust me one more time.”

​She considered for a moment.

“I did trust you. We all did, and you betrayed us.”

​“I’m sorry you think so,” he said. Isabelle folded her arms across her lap, watching one of the birds as it took flight and soared over the Ministry of Archives, disappearing into the distance beyond. When he was sure she would say nothing further, he asked: “You know where the Communion Vault is. Will you meet me there?”

​“I don’t know,” she said at last. “Maybe.” She frowned. “Security Consolidation Act. You people make me sick.”

​“I’ve said everything I can for now.” He rose. “But I swear to you, things are not what they seem. Meet me at the Communion Vault and I’ll prove it,” he said, then began to walk away.

Almost as one, the birds leapt into the air as he went, soaring overhead, splashing them both with fleeting shadows. Within a moment, both the birds and Aleister Duchenne had vanished from view.

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Chapter Eight  (E)
Out of the Shadows
#2190670 by Dan Hiestand
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