A Secret Meeting
Selgrin wandered the nearby streets, avoiding the eyes that followed him from seemingly every window and doorway. He had almost forgotten how you couldn’t get from the residential areas to the taverns without going through the merchant quarters first. It made getting from point A to point C a real pain sometimes, but he had sure missed it.
He clutched his cloak tightly against the rain. A month earlier, it would have been sheets of snow. If only the fortunes of his people could so easily improve. From the moment they decided to join Azren, their influence in the region had evaporated along with the respect and friendship of the humans. Forty years later, not much had changed.
One thing he had learned in life was that there was no entitlement to fairness. With his good arm, he wiped away the stray drops that stung his eyes. No entitlement to anything, for that matter.
He still remembered his first transformation into an animal. In that instant, he had gone from broken to special. They anointed him the Dersimeysous. What he hadn’t told Daen and Zeph was that the title had a meaning: the savior. He’d taken on the job of Chamber Head hoping to be just that, only things hadn’t worked out as planned.
This time around, he wouldn’t be such a self-indulgent dolt. After tonight’s denouncement of Azren, he would begin a groundswell for allying the dogar and humans. It would be the next step to bringing his people back to where they had been.
By the time the sun disappeared from view, he’d blown off enough steam to consider returning to the rally. Let them say what they would. He had learned to be thick-skinned over the years, traveling among the humans. No one trusted a dogar. Not anymore.
He spotted a man crossing the street with a thick black walking stick: Senator Velotanin. Selgrin stepped into the shadow of an overhang for a more discreet view as the senator turned down an alley toward the city’s seedier merchants.
It seemed rather suspicious for the man behind the effort to join forces with Azren to be roaming dark alleys this night. Selgrin changed into his favorite form: a rat. Growing up in a rough part of Feralintero had given him opportunity to study many of them, a lifetime of unique rats he could become.
Velotanin walked swiftly, sweeping his head from left to right while Selgrin scurried along behind him. A nest of rats loomed ahead. On another day they might have prevented his passage, but tonight was too wet and cold for them to leave their shelter. He could hardly blame them. His own fur was soaked through after he’d slipped into a large puddle and practically had to swim across.
The streets around them were dark, but the shop windows were darker still. They looked closed, though Selgrin knew better. Struggling to keep up, he at first didn’t realize Velotanin had stopped in front of an unmarked building. He slammed his claws down, sliding to within a few rat lengths of him, a towering giant from Sel’s perspective.
Velotanin turned to scan his trail when he noticed Sel. “What are you looking at?”
What the heck was he looking at? He was a rat, for Dronilowyn’s sake. Selgrin made for the wall, sniffing here and there along the way. It smelled horrible. Velotanin, apparently satisfied, entered the establishment without further ado.
Selgrin made his way over to the window and shimmied up to the sill, using cracks and uneven surfaces to push off from with his claws. Even so, it took three attempts to scale the rain-slick wall. The window was open, with drapes pulled hastily across. He poked his rat nose through for a view of Velotanin standing rigid in the center of the room.
“You can come out now,” said the senator.
A middle-aged dogar emerged through a doorway opposite Selgrin. He had a narrow, gaunt face with high cheekbones and greasy black hair that curled up at the back. He peeled off a drab traveling cloak as if it were poisonous, revealing a fine silken shirt and leggings and gaudy rings that glinted in the candlelight. The attire was showy for a dogar, but Selgrin had never known Belatreeg to be normal.
The son of Velotanin had grown up shunning most of the dogar ways. Years before the Great War, he left Feralintero to make his riches among the humans. It had long been a point of embarrassment to Velotanin that his son had left rather than follow in his footsteps as a senator.
“Father,” said Belatreeg formally, “how do things fare?” His voice had become coarser over the years.
“You know exactly how they fare,” retorted Velotanin. “Or have you stopped reading my status reports?”
“I read them, I just—I wanted to confirm the vote will be in our favor.”
“I assure you, I have everything under control. You are careless coming here.”
Belatreeg’s eyes flashed, though his tone was subdued. “I do only what the master asks.”
“And for the sake of our people.” Velotanin ground his walking stick to the ground. “Or have you spent so much time as Azren’s lapdog you’ve forgotten why I sent you there in the first place?”
Sent him there? Selgrin’s rat jaw dropped
“Of course, for our people. Do not question my loyalty, Father. Who do you think endured all those years at Azren’s hands? I did.” Belatreeg’s face twitched. “Who followed every order, no matter how servile? I did. Not for him, and certainly not for you, but for every dogar who remembers what it was like when we were the lifeblood of Draza. And I did all that while you stayed home playing senator.”
“Is that how you see me, some doddering old fool dabbling at politics?”
Belatreeg sniggered. “There’s no pretending it’s the front line, Father.”
Velotanin slung his walking stick; the crack of it hitting his son’s face made Sel jolt. Belatreeg ended up on the ground wincing in pain.
“Don’t get uppity with me, boy.” The elder dogar stood over Belatreeg, who looked especially thin and weak lying there.
“H-How dare you?”
“I will dare to go much farther—even killing my own blood, should it come to that.”
Belatreeg rose slowly to his feet, his hand rubbing the red welt across his jaw. “You think you have power, but you are nothing but a servant to Azren. Kill me, and we’ll see what happens. He’d not allow you live long.” The words were all bark. Selgrin could tell he was petrified of his father—always had been.
Velotanin glared back. He raised up his walking stick and Belatreeg cowered. It was not until he lowered it back to the ground, did his son speak, meekly this time.
“Let me be forthright about why I’m here, Father. There is a rumor that the Chamber Head of the Senate will vote against the dogar union with Azren. The master worries—”
“‘The master’—it is you who holds concern, afraid of what he might do to you should our people reject an alliance.”
Belatreeg walked over to the window on the other side of Sel and made sure the curtains did not have the slightest opening. “I simply want to be certain.”
Velotanin turned around to keep his son in view, meaning Sel was also in his line of sight. “Do not let this rumor trouble your sycophantic heart. Lofilyer will be unable to vote tonight. That I promise you.”
The words struck him like he was the one hit by Velotanin’s walking stick. His rat body shuddered, though it could have been from the frigid air against his sopping fur.
“Our master will be relieved to hear that, as am I,” said Belatreeg.
Maybe he still had time to reach Lofilyer. Glancing behind him to the streets, Sel readied himself to shimmy down the slick wall.
“So keen on my doings, yet I’ve heard nothing of the gems. How do you fare in that respect?”
“The Gems of Tazanjia are close at hand.”
Selgrin paused. Them again? First on the road to Duradune and now here.
Velotanin nodded. “Indeed. Then maybe it’s time you stop being my wet nurse and have at it.”
“This union between our people and Azren is paramount. You just do your part and I’ll do mine.” He stepped over toward Sel’s window and paused. For a moment, Selgrin thought he was spotted, then Belatreeg continued, unperturbed. “And Father, one more thing.”
“You really need to clean up your shop. It attracts rats.”
Velotanin shifted his attention to where Selgrin was perched on the sill. Recognition flooded his eyes. “Too true. Rats are notorious for getting into things they should well leave alone.”
Velotanin was no idiot. He knew of Sel’s ability. Clearly he would think this second sighting of a rat to be no coincidence.
Velotanin closed the distance to the windowsill. Sel’s little rat heart thumped in his little rat body. He wanted to climb down, slip away, literally turn tail, and run, but he could not take his eyes off Velotanin.
“And some rats never learn their lessons.” Velotanin dove forward, arms outstretched.
Selgrin backpedaled off the windowsill. He landed hard on the slick street. Pain rang in his ears, knocking him to his senses and clarifying what was important.
Lofilyer. He had to warn Lofilyer. Without the Chamber Head’s vote, there would be an alliance with Azren. Sel could not let that happen. Not again.
In Selgrin’s absence, Delisrakin drunk enough ale for the both of them, and Zeph seemed to be taking full advantage.
“Okay, I got one: What’s the most embarrassing thing you could tell me about Sel?”
Daen wondered if this was one of those instances where knowledge was a bad thing.
“You know Selgrin, he’s not one for being the center of attention—unless of course a girl is involved,” said Delisrakin. “Trying to show off, he once turned into the biggest rat you’ve ever seen, a black, hairy guy. Of course, the girl screamed like he’d grown a second head. Selgrin bolted in fright and almost got himself cut in half by the city guard.”
“The good times you two must have had.” Zeph wore an envious grin. “Tell me, did you have any brotherly nicknames? Sel swears you didn’t.”
“I always just called him baby bro, though there was that one time . . . he was late to go through his spawning, thought it might not happen at all. He spent the whole week moping about. Maya and I said we’d start making up names for him until he stopped.” He scratched his head, swaying a bit. “There was Sourgrin . . . and Sullenostair . . . ooh, and another one, on the tip of my tongue . . .”
Zeph was bent over chortling. “Sourgrin—I knew it. I knew you two had brotherly nicknames!”
Delisrakin smiled briefly. “We were close back then.”
“If I may,” said Daen, “what is the spawning?”
“It’s when a dogar gets to a certain age and his abilities become . . . become recognized.” The eloquence Daen had heard earlier was gone; the alcohol was taking its toll.
“I bet he was surprised when he learned what he could do.”
“At first.” Delisrakin turned somber. “But being the Dersimeysous got to his head. It had been twenty years since the last one, and Selgrin was worshipped like he was Dronilowyn himself. Me, I can’t even change how I look—only voices.”
He paused, staring past Daen without focus as if he was remembering something, or perhaps the drink was permeating his senses. “I was the first person he changed into, but he didn’t think much of me after that. He became a senator and then the youngest Chamber Head. It seemed like nothing could stop him.”
Zeph’s laughter was replaced by curiosity. “Is that when he began to sell his vote to the highest bidder?”
“He wouldn’t—not when it mattered.” Delisrakin took a big swig of ale, then wiped his mouth clean with a forearm.
Daen saw a great sadness in Delisrakin’s eyes, and he suspected there was more to the story of Sel’s fall from grace. “That’s not how Mayalordrel tells it. She says he made a fortune tying your people Azren. War, tragedy, death, whatever the consequences, it mattered little as long as he lined his own pockets.”
“No. It wasn’t like that.” Delisrakin shook a finger at Daen in anger.
“I imagine he grew tired of making excuses for your lack of skill.” Daen probed for answers without pity. “Leaving Feralintero meant not having to share his riches with anybody.”
Zeph leaned into him. “Daen, maybe now’s—”
“He abandoned you,” he continued, “Left you to die in the war with every other dogar he betrayed.”
“That’s a lie!” bellowed Delisrakin so fiercely that others, including Mayalordrel, came over to see what was going on. The veins bulged on his face. His hands fell to his sides, one balled into a fist, the other spilling the flagon he was carrying. For a moment, Daen thought he would start a brawl on the spot, but as he became aware of all the eyes upon him, his features eased and his voice softened. “You just don’t know him like I do.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. “The way you have poured your heart and coin into this campaign is something to be proud of,” Daen said, attempting to calm the waves of anger before sending them spiking back up. “But your brother’s actions cannot be abided. He sold the dogar people to Azren for his own well-being. What’s more, he selfishly fled rather than fight in the war alongside his fellow dogar.” His voice rise to a crescendo. “You cannot deny it any longer. Selgrin is the filthiest of traitors.”
“You watch your words,” Delisrakin said through clenched teeth. “I don’t care if Selgrin swears by you, I’ll knock your head off. My brother’s no traitor. He could never, never do what you say.”
Daen peered accusingly at Delisrakin. “But he did. Selgrin betrayed his whole race for a pile of coin.”
“You’re—you’re not listening.” Delisrakin grabbed Daen’s cloak with both hands. His flagon was now on the ground in a puddle of its past contents. “That’s not how it happened. He’s no traitor.”
“Um, guys,” said Zeph, “we’re on the same side—”
“That is exactly how it happened,” Daen shouted. “The greed of your brother led to the suffering of all dogar. Who else could possibly be responsible?”
Delisrakin’s face flushed, his grip tightened. Those around them—and they had attracted quite a crowd at this point—stared silently. Daen tensed, ready to be knocked backward or strangled, clearly aware that no dogar would step in to help. Just when he was certain Delisrakin would explode in a fury, the dogar let his hands fall away. He broke.
“I did it. It was me who accepted the coin. Selgrin wouldn’t vote the way I said, so I tied him to his bed while he slept.” Delisrakin glanced at those around him. “There were so many angry dogar after that. They would have strung me up if they knew. Selgrin took the blame and left Feralintero. He always did right by me, even then.”
Daen probably should have let it lie there, but he needed to drive the point home. It was time to clear his friend’s name for good. “This cannot be. Everyone knows it was the Dersimeysous who was paid off. He turned his back on his people.”
“Everyone is wrong. It was all my doing. I swear at Dronilowyn’s feet.” For a moment, he looked confident and in control, as he had when he was on the platform. And the evidence of what he said rang true.
“But why, Delisrakin? Why would you let your brother shoulder the blame for the dogar alliance with Azren?”
“I was scared. I didn’t know much about Azren or what would happen when our people joined with him. But once the vote was decided, it was too late.” Delisrakin’s head sank down, his voice but a whisper. “I tried to make it right. After the war, I built schools and a hospital. And I did everything I could to prevent us from rejoining Azren again. But as Selgrin would say, what’s done is done.”
Daen took a hard swallow, his throat dry with regret. He had been trained to break men down, but now he questioned his own motives. Had he forced the confession because it was necessary or simply because he could? Sel could have exposed his brother long ago, and Delisrakin must have had ample opportunities to confess. Why was he playing the court’s magistrate?
Of all people to come forward, it was Mayalordrel who bent to console Delisrakin. She couldn’t forgive Sel and yet somehow she found empathy for his brother. The lines on Delisrakin’s face smoothed as the anguish faded. There was a peace behind his eyes. It was then Daen realized he had done more than crush one dogar to redeem another. He might have given Delisrakin a way to forgive himself.
Much of the excitement and revelry of the evening was lost as spectators distanced themselves from the scene with dimmed spirits.
Zeph cleared his throat. “Couldn’t you have saved that for after the celebration?”
Selgrin swerved around the door as it burst open, keeping to the shadows, weaving around trash and puddles. After several blocks of scurrying as fast as his rat legs could carry him, he changed back into dogar form and continued to run.
Pounding through his mind were Velotanin’s words: Lofilyer will be unable to vote tonight.
In the years since the Great War, relations had gotten better between the humans and dogar. Hatred had given way to mere mistrust, and even that would ebb with time. But if Lofilyer could not vote, if their people joined with Azren again, there would never be reconciliation. Not in his lifetime.
He arrived at Lofilyer’s residence out of breath. The rain had stopped, but his clothes were still wet. A neighbor watched him with beady-eyed interest. He bent his head down and away, hoping the darkness would hide his identity. Now was not the time to draw unwanted attention.
He knocked several times in succession. After a twenty count, the door creaked open.
“Yes?” an ancient voice creaked.
“It’s me, Selgrinostair.”
The door shut again. Sel tapped his toes apprehensively. The neighbor was still there, watching without being too obvious about it. Nothing stayed secret for long in Feralintero. He was considering drastic measures when the door swung inward, revealing a wrinkled dogar already moving back into the house.
Sel followed him into an adjacent room, where he plopped himself into one of several oversized chairs. It had been forty years since he had seen Lofilyer; he looked much like he remembered, outside of being more hunched with age.
Settling himself across from Lofilyer, he recounted what he had heard, how Velotanin was in league with Azren and how he said that the Chamber Head would be unable to vote tonight.
The old statesman leaned back in his chair, taking deep gulps of air as if thirsty for it. “Selgrinostair . . . I very much appreciate your concern . . . but while I cannot disclose which way my vote sways, I will be there. No amount of coin or threats will stop me.”
Lofilyer had been a senator since before Selgrin was born, and his status had made him wealthy. Giving raxburies in exchange for political favors was a common legal practice among the dogar, though Lofilyer was not known to betray his beliefs for a bribe.
“If it’s all the same to you, I’d like to escort you to the Senate Stage.”
“I gladly welcome the company of the Dersimeysous.” He took great pains to rise. Selgrin quickly followed, extending Lofilyer his good hand. “No, no. Old Lofilyer can take care of himself.” He hobbled over to a cabinet and pulled out a bottle and two cups before returning to his seat with a grin. “I am not so young as I once was. I need some fire in the blood if I’m going to make it through the night. How about you? Some droo wine for the soul?”
“None for me.” He couldn’t afford the kick that came with the rare dogar wine. He poured a cup for Lofilyer, holding the base down with his stub. The smoldering red liquid reminded Sel of the cloak that Copius wore.
Lofilyer held up a hand when offered the glass. “Smell the wine first. You may change your mind about joining me. Deep breath.”
Selgrin brought the glass to his nose and breathed in heavily. The fruity scent was overpowering. His head spun. He could barely return the cup to Lofilyer, who looked at him expectantly.
“Nice?” he inquired.
“Very good.” Selgrin coughed. “Though after all that running, I think I could use some water.”
“Down the hallway, third door on your left,” said Lofilyer.
There was a knock at the front door.
“I’ll get that,” said Selgrin placing his hand on Lofilyer’s shoulder, partly to keep the Chamber Head seated and partly to steady himself. “Just give me a moment.”
He stumbled to the hallway, still feeling like he’d downed a whole jug of ale on a dare. What had Lofilyer said? Was it the second or the third door? He made a guess and swung his weight into it.
Inside was a bed stripped of its cover. Lying on it was an elderly dogar, eyes open and staring at the ceiling, his skin white as the sheets. Without a second glance, Selgrin made two determinations: the man on the bed was no longer alive; and he was, or at least had been, Lofilyer.
Whatever daze had come over Selgrin fled as fear smothered his other senses. The dogar he had been speaking with was a shape-shifter. Selgrin must have arrived before he had time to escape. By the looks of the body on the bed, the stranger was not even a good copy, but since he had not set eyes on the Chamber Head in so many years, the ruse had been sufficient.
Selgrin stepped back into the hall and looked toward where the fake Lofilyer had been seated moments ago. The chair was empty.
He heard the front door shut. The familiar voice of Velotanin rumbled through the walls. Selgrin slipped back into the bedroom, closing the door behind him. Footsteps were coming in his direction. He dropped down and slid under the bed. The steps paused outside the room. He grabbed the slats of the bed frame and lifted himself off the ground, pressing his face to the wood, breathing in walnut.
The door swung open. He froze. All was quiet. He could sense Velotanin’s silent scan. Then more footsteps. Something was shoved under the bed, scraping the floor. It brushed against his back as it swept from left to right. It took a moment for him to realize it was Velotanin’s walking stick. He clung to the bed slats, his muscles shaking from the effort.
“Selgrinostair . . .” came the hoarse voice of the fake Lofilyer.
Finally the stick was retracted, its owner satisfied.
Footfalls moved away. The door closed.
He could hear knocking at the next room over. They would discover he wasn’t there soon enough. But if he hurried, he could leave the residence ahead of them.
He burst from his room, but the moment he entered the hallway, he knew he was in trouble. Velotanin and the imposter were indeed too far away to stop him. What he hadn’t counted on was a guard at the front entrance. An open window provided his only other option, but he would have to cross an intersection just a handful of steps from the guard.
He bolted down the hallway, ignoring the voice of the fake Lofilyer calling after him. The guard reached out to grab him as he went by. Hands closed around fabric and held tight. His already torn shirt finished splitting as he struggled past.
Not far now, but the gap between him and his pursuers was closing. Ten more strides. Boots banged the wooden floor behind him.
Sel didn’t pause when he reached the window. He dove across its threshold and into a tangle of bushes that scratched his face and chest but barely slowed his momentum. Down the streets of Feralintero he sped, drenched with despair.
It was happening again. The dogar would choose Azren, and the bloodletting would begin. The Great War had ripped away friends and relatives, destroyed cities. What will my people be left with this time?
He pushed himself onward, down streets more twisted than his insides and pulled up at the rally in front of Daen and Zeph with ragged breath and a curse on his lips for how out of shape he had become.
“Practicing your sprints again?” asked Zeph.
He let the heaving of his chest slow before speaking. “We have to go. Now.”
Mayalordrel appeared with a new look in her eyes, one Selgrin hadn’t seen for some time. “Stay, Selgrin. Celebrate this victory with your people.”
It barely registered that she called him by his shortened name. He scanned the area anxiously. Torchlights clustered around the Senate Stage, where Velotanin would be showing up at any moment.
Mayalordrel put her hands inside his torn shirt, resting on his bare shoulders, casting for his attention. “Your brother explained why you missed the vote when you were Chamber Head, how you were not to blame.”
Of all times, not now. “Not to blame for what? For running away, for taking the easy way out, for leaving my friends and family to die in the war? I’ve a secret to tell you. It was all me.”
She gave him a questioning stare. “Delisrakin said you didn’t take the raxburies.”
“Whatever my brother said, it’s forty years too late.” He brushed her grip from his shoulders. “Besides, I don’t think there will be any celebrating tonight.”
Her eyes turned steely. “What do you mean by that?”
“Listen, Maya, I have to go.” He struggled to say what came next. “Maybe for good this time.” Having been away so many years, he wasn’t ready to leave again.
Velotanin called for attention from the stage. It didn’t look like he’d give Sel a choice. “I have an announcement. Lofilyer will not be here tonight. He has been assassinated.” It took his expert working of the crowd to calm the swell of reaction. “The culprit of this heinous crime is the Dersimeysous.”
The crowd turned to stare, but it was Maya’s questioning eyes that he could not ignore.
“Like I said, there’s not going to be any celebrating tonight.”
He shot an urgent look to Daen and Zeph, and they joined him as he made a run for it. Some of the spectators grabbed at them, but they were halfhearted attempts. The citizens of Feralintero didn’t know what to believe.
Velotanin called for the guards, who weren’t so uncertain. Armor clanked in the background as they organized for pursuit.
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