An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

Whispers and Secrets Tiberius

“Bloody ashes,” cried Tiberius once they were away from the building where the poor, terrified woman was now dressing herself in a near-maddened frenzy.  “What do you think you were doing, Navarius? Leaving a girl in only her small-clothes in that freezing room? Are you trying to kill her?” He did not even want to ask how the spymaster had managed to make the room feel so cold when the rest of the city was still in the humid grip of summer.

“Of course not, old friend,” replied the spymaster smoothly. “I was merely encouraging her to speak more freely.”

“How? By helping her come down with a fever?”

“I have found that the experience of being questioned in a cold environment can…speed things along. The subject reacts to their own discomfort and, in hopes of escaping it, is far more willing to share the information we may be looking for.”

“It didn’t seem like she was hiding anything to me.”

“Of course she is. Everyone is hiding something. Even you. And even me. Perhaps you simply did not ask the right questions.”

“You’re disgusting.”

“I am what I am,” the spymaster replied. While his voice kept its usual, easy timbre, Tiberius thought he could also detect a faint, steely edge. “The Queen pays me for the information I gather, not for my moral conscience. If I also happen to enjoy the work, well so much the better.”

Tiberius remained silent. There was simply nothing else to say. Instead, he focused on gathering his bearings. He could still feel the faint sway of the Kharnine, lapping at the wooden beams that held the entire Stilt District over the water, but he also knew they would soon be passing back onto solid ground. The salty scent of the Great Ships and the boisterous shouting of their sailors were both fading, replaced with the more familiar sounds and smells of the city proper. The aromas of fresh bread, pastries and other delicacies could do little to mask the distinctly sour and unavoidable stink of a hundred thousand people crammed in a single city. Years of experience had taught Tiberius that the best way to ignore that particular stench was to think about something else.

So he turned his mind onto the problem at hand. Ronnex. On the subject of the town, the histories were almost entirely silent. It was mentioned briefly in Letivicus’ account of the Fey Wars, and even then only in passing. If Tiberius remembered correctly it was located somewhere in the northeast, though he was unsure of which Lord its people were sworn to. What had Jayslen been doing there? Did the town itself have any significance to the prince? Had it even been Jayslen, or simply some importer playing on a vague resemblance? Though such imitation was punishable by death, it was not unheard of.

Unfortunately, there was no reliable way of knowing without first visiting both the town and the White Wyvern itself. It was a long journey—likely three week by horseback—and not one that the old sage was particularly keen to make. Fortunately, the Queen had other, more expedient ways to travel, but even one of her wind chariots would take several days to cover the required distance. Tiberius’ aching back would not thank him for it. He briefly considered sending Finnius and Nathaneal, but quickly dismissed the idea. He needed to hear whatever they discovered with his own ears rather than trusting in the accuracy of another’s report.

How does Navarius do it? Tiberius wondered. The Master of Whispers rarely left the city of Relen’ayar itself, yet the information that reached him from across the Realm was always uncannily accurate. His spies must be meticulously trained in observing and recording. Could I ever trust Finnius that much?

His train of thought was cut short by the sounds of laughter and the footsteps of running children. An instant later, two small bodies collided with his own, driving the air from his lungs and nearly knocking him to the ground. As he braced himself against the impact, however, he felt himself strangely supported by strong, young bodies. It was as though the children had actually meant to run into him and were intentionally keeping him from falling.

An instant later, he understood why.

In the midst of the collision, he felt a small, spherical object pressed into his palm. Its smooth surface was warm against his skin. Moving as quickly and subtly as he was able, he tucked it securely into one of his pockets.

“Oh!” said one of the children, a young boy by his voice. “Apologies sir. We were just our way to meet a friend there, and we’re running late.”

“Cursed brats!” snapped Navarius. “Watch where you’re going! You nearly knocked over my good friend here!”

“Yes sir. Of course, sir. It won’t happen again, sir.”

“See that it doesn’t. No off with you!” Without another word, the children scurried off again, running and laughing as if nothing had happened at all. “My apologies, old friend. They came out nowhere. I hardly saw them until it was too late. Are you hurt?”

“Just startled,” replied Tiberius. “I think I have escaped unscathed, thank the Nine.”

“Indeed. I can see the the carriage approaching. Just in time, I think. Unfortunately, I will not be accompanying you back to the palace. Pressing business in another part of the city, you understand.”

“Of course,” said the sage. He could hear the approaching beat of iron-shoed hoofs on the cobble-stone roads—they had left the Stilt District several minutes ago—and every clanking turn of the iron wheels. It was slowing as they approached, the horses whinnying in protest.

“The Captain of the Guard will be riding you,” said Navarius as the carriage finally came to a stop.

“Sir Avendor,” Tiberius called, “is that you?”

“It is,” replied the Captain. “Good to see you again, wise one.”

The Master of Whispers laughed. “Such trust! Do you really think I would I send you off to your doom, old friend?”

“Only if it profited you,” replied Tiberius. Reaching out one hand he found the carriage door. Gripping the handle his hands found there, he pulled himself up onto the cushioned seat, carefully resting one hand over the pocket where the Whisper Glass remained safely hidden. “I do thank you for your assistance, however. You have been most helpful. I will be sure to make note of it in my report to the Queen.”

“You are quite welcome,” said the spymaster. “Oh, and one last thing. Did I mention that the palace chapel will be closed for several months? Minor repairs and such. I’m afraid you’ll need head into the city to satisfy your sporadic spells of religious devotion. I won’t keep you any longer though. I’m sure we’ll be talking again very soon.” Though hidden in the guise of hollow pleasantry, Navarius’ message was clear. Tiberius was being watched. The only question that remained was exactly how much the other man really knew.

Well then, thought the old sage, if he is the game he seeks, let him play. He’ll quickly find that this old man is not without his own resources. He could almost hear the Whisper Glass speaking to him, and it was all he could do not to smash it right there in the carriage.

Stay Up to Date

There are all kinds of ways to keep up with the latest instalments of An Unfolding Tale. Subscribe to the newsletter for exclusive content, or follow the Tale through RSS or social media!