At first, it appeared that they would be ignored by the young man and his retinue but as they were crossing paths the young man said, “Take the human.”
The already tensed and wary Rohn took less than the blink of an eye to position himself between Wren and the opposing group, slapping away the grasping hand of the nearest red sash. “So the House of Grim Shadows is no longer satisfied with extorting those they desire through the rite of blood sharing so you simply abduct them off the streets!?” Rohn bellowed, attracting the attention of all nearby.
“This is a matter of security, not personal vendetta. As for your issues with the rite of blood sharing, that is a matter for family council not public venue.” said an older armored man approaching behind them.
“Eldest Grimshadow, the Grand Teacher himself personally vouched that our surface guests were not a danger as long as they were not provoked unjustly. Are you calling his honor or wisdom into question!?” Rohn said with a look of unfeigned surprise on his face.
“No. I call in to question what their definition of justice is and beyond that, what secrets they may possess to benefit our people. Secrets that the Suncave family may attempt to hoard as it's own.” The older man parried before continuing, “I don't understand why you would adamantly refuse yesterday's proposal so hastily. If my son-,” he gestured at the youth with a purple sash, “took a liking to the red haired maiden then your daughter would not have to serve as proving wife. We may even drop our claim on your prior betrothed if your daughter's purity is high enough. This would allow your house to have a proper matron heir and allow the possibility of your daughter serving as one as well.”
“Is this what we have sunk to? Treating our families' women as livestock for trade, bleeding my family to death for mere chances that have not ruled in my family's favor since your family replaced mine as the enforcers of law nearly 200 years ago. You must take my matron and I as fools! Ratifying a law to take my daughter that should have protected her from such a thing for another five years; she is only fourteen, a child in the eyes of the people for another two years!” Rohn seethed with barely contained rage.
“Think that you are fools, we know-”
“You are poorly informed, Eldest,” Wren interjected, unconsciously levering the back of his hand against Rohn's chest in gentle restraint, which earned him quite a few surprised stares and a ridiculing sneer from the older man.
I may not know much of this culture but I'm more than familiar with trying to intentionally get someone to fly off their handle. Let's see how you like the taste of your own medicine.
Wren went on the offensive, “Sister Lilly is spirit marked by The Riverson in acceptance of his son's courtship. If you doubt my words you can have your son and his band attempt to do to her what you have tried to do today and witness the outcome. As for myself and eldest brother, we are attending to tasks set forth by your esteemed guardian,” Wren took a few steps forward and leaned in to whisper in the offending eldest's ear while lazily trailing an index finger down the center of the filigreed breastplate, fancifully imagining the arcane infused digit as a flay knife against bare skin. “He knows the pact is a lie. Pray his brotherly love is stronger than his wrath.”
As Wren sauntered away from the petrified man, Rohn in confused tow, the sound of a metallic pop followed by clinking of various pieces of material hitting the ground reached their ears.
Ah, so damn satisfying. I'm terrified of what Lilly's gonna do when it's her turn to blow off some steam. This whole situation has rubbed her all kinds of the wrong way. Makes me wonder if there's some truth behind the myth of a redhead's temper.
After running a gambit of emotions, Rohn's face finally settled into a stony grimace as he said, “Destruction of a warrior's equipment is a serious offense.”
Taking a moment to think of what to say and recalling that he earned another 'yellow card' against Rohn during the exchange Wren responded jokingly with, “ And here I thought I was openly seducing him while shamelessly flirting with you in an agreeable way! Pity he was too weak to receive my affection and fell apart at the seams.” Wren energetically batted his eyes at Rohn.
Rohn blankly stared at Wren for a moment before busting out in loud peals of stress releasing laughter. Taking the lead once more after collecting himself, he said, “Lets get you to the Archives before you have the chance to stir anymore trouble. Beauties truly are the tomb of heroes.”
Wren was struck silent as black lines formed on his face.
As they arrived in front of and entered the most austere structure Wren had seen since arriving in this world, he was overwhelmed with a sense of how serious the ancestors of these people treated their history and knowledge and just how far their descendants had strayed from those values. Built like a bomb shelter and prison inspired bank vault, the caged cells boasted an assortment of apartment mailbox walls, anchored shelves with chain-link cabinet doors and filing cabinets. The storage mediums themselves ranged from binders of materials eerily similar to laminated paper to carved tablets. The painful lengths taken to preserve only counterpointed by the equally painful lack of individuals taking advantage of such cultural wealth.
It took nearly three minutes of reverent sightseeing before they ran into an elderly brown sash woman replacing materials in one of the cells from a metal pushcart evoking nostalgic memories from Wren of the city library he used to frequent as a teen.
After a quick question on etiquette to Rohn, Wren said, “pardon the intrusion madam archivist.”
“ It's of no consequence young masters but this old woman has no claims to such a lofty title,” said the elderly woman before executing a slow, excruciating bow.
Wren desperately wished to rush forward to urge her to stand but didn't know what kind of misunderstandings might arise from it so assuaged his guilt by saying, “There is no mistaking the loving care that you put into the work you do and without the knowledge of how to do it I doubt you would have been entrusted to the task. If in no one else's eyes, there's little other that you could be in mine. It's a matter of fact not flattery.”
“Agreed,” Rohn decisively added, earning him a grateful look from Wren and a teary, warbling smile from the goblinoid old woman. The combined power of which, drove Rohn to stare fixedly at the unadorned wall with a dry cough.
“So madam archivist would you ha-”
“If you're looking for these old bones you need do no more than turn around,” said a voice Wren had heard two days ago but would likely not forget for a great deal of time to come.
Before his brain to mouth filter could kick back on after being startled out of his mind, Wren spun around and shrilly said, “ Are you trying to get me to join you in haunting this place you old ghost!” leaving his escort and the elderly woman pole-axed as the Grand Teacher's eyebrows crawled up his forehead.
The silence only lasted a moment before labored chuckles forced themselves out of the old man's chest. A look of joy on his weathered face that transformed to a countenance of profound melancholy. “Nearly twenty years ago in this very hall was the last time I've heard similar words. The one who said them buried more than eighteen along with the last of my heart, may she be smiling over and still chiding my foolishness in the Shadowlands. I don't know whether to clutch at you and cry like a child or ask you to leave.”
“As much as I would prefer the second over the first, the matters that bring me here are too important so may I offer a more comfortable third option where I apologize for my outburst and share with you the reason for my visit. Grand Teacher is it?” Wren offered, an awkward attempt at sympathetic humor.
“Yes, that would be for the best,” the old man said mustering up some false cheer. “What does bring you here?”
“Three things: The first you probably suspect that I would be seeing you about at some point since you were the one who suggested it to Matron Suncave, though I'd like to add some general knowledge texts to the list of study material. The second and third need to be discussed in private.”
“Gatha, would you please show Eldest Suncave to my drawing room and serve him refreshments... Nameless Grimshadow runner, best remember who taught your teacher and leave of your own accord.” the Grand Teacher kept his head cocked for a few moments before making his way to the well-worn chair in the opened cell and said, “The floor is yours.”
“ The original Will of Umberdown is now known to The Riverson. He has decided to spare you and your household despite Deepwise participating in the deception. He gives this reprieve with the provision that the Heart of the Archive be moved to Riverside pavilion along with any other materials of importance, at your discretion and under secrecy. I would further add, at the eve of the Rite of Blood Sharing you demand the inclusion of all families and retinue to observe. As a personal request, independent of The Riverson's, I'd like you to move the site of exchange to the vestibule of wellness under the guise of a great public blood purity test and invite me to attend.”
“ This means that, Great Gods of the Dreaming Deep. Demanding the inclusion of all families and retinue is common enough an occurrence when a teacher notices signs of shallow breeding. It would insure that the matrons and eldest of each family would stay home. I get the reason for that. Your second request would leave me shouting this secret from the mid-square if not for you requesting to be present. Did Jaden even attempt to talk his father out of such an action?” the old man said with a pale face.
Wren contemplated a moment before continuing, “He doesn't know. Likely I'm the only one who does aside from The Riverson himself, now you. Before Rohn found us we spent a night at the side of a strangely hewn hillock well above and beyond the established riverbank. The grass was too sparse, the hillock too easy to dig at in spots and too hard in others, a myriad other signs. Upon seeing Riverside Pavilion the very first thing I noticed was how very wide and flat the shallow river was. It's banks were practically non-existent slopes leading up to the same level as the Suncave. The last clue I needed was when The Riverson warned me that trying to leave in the next two moon cycles would be near-certain death without outside assistance and Matron's insistence that even if Rohn wanted to help us get back to the surface that the next two moons wouldn't be possible just solidified the conclusion. If it was just the desire to use and manipulate us she wouldn't have pretty much told us we'd have free run to figure things out.”
“What's to stop me from warning everyone right now?” the old man said with a dangerous glint in his eyes.
“Because the moment you do, you will likely doom us all. Right now, affection for his brother and newly found guilt towards his own son stays his hand somewhat. It is a flimsy protection against the retribution he craves. Little of it has to do with the false pact itself mind you. I get the feeling that for love of his brother he would have done much for all of you even under the original pact but the great families hid behind the false one when they executed his firstborn for seducing three separate pure blood daughters, imprisoning and keeping his second born drugged when she disagreed to be a broodmare for two families at once and forced her to do it until it killed her.
“I think it's worth noting at this point that of the only two families that won't kiss Grimshadow's collective ass, yours is on the verge of dissolution and Suncave, formerly House Umberdown has been actively dismantled piece by piece using increasingly more aggressive means each passing generation. If the rotten core of your people isn't excised, how will it have a chance to thrive once blood purity driven rule is ended. The slow decline of male fertility and female survival doesn't seem coincidental if you consider the fate of his own progeny. If The Riverson had never known of the false pact who knows or even dares to contemplate what would have come to pass in the next couple dozen years.
“The last thing I have to discuss with you is more something that I thought of on the way here. Is there some way that you can think of for two people to be smuggled to the surface and back at some point before the Rite of Blood Sharing? It may seem unrelated but it's linked to my plan to save more of your people.”
The gears in the old man's mind could almost visibly be seen grinding as he replied, “The thoughts of the younger generation are truly difficult for me to keep up with but yes, when you couch it in such a way there is. I want your oath that this action you would have me commit to will help significantly. If you will give me that then I will give you your request but I need the time to complete The Riverson's demands first. I'll need around a moon cycle.”
After a brief but pleasant discussion about the finer points of teaching, it was time to meet up with Rohn and collect the materials Wren was after before temporarily parting ways with the Grand Teacher. After he stepped out into the dry, slightly stale air he was hit with a sudden intense desire for open skies and a fresh breeze. He took a moment to sigh deeply knowing the nearest opportunity for such a thing was still nearly three weeks away.
Off the steps and nearly to the pathway that would lead them on a winding way back to Suncave, Wren was hit with something else, a stinging pain in the side of his neck. As his hand brushed a fuzzy butted needle his adrenaline assisted subconscious had already kicked his body into overdrive. Between the reflexive duck down and barely summoned air tulpa throwing a strong gust around Rohn and himself he managed to avoid the following two. He pulled out the offending weapon while he scanned Rohn a once over noticing a needle barely hanging on to the outer side of Rohn's upper arm where it had barely clipped the topmost layer of skin.
As Wren's vision began to blur he sluggishly took a half-second to register an aged but still powerful voice shout, “You Dare!” before trying to purge his body of the foreign toxin.