Uprise 1.14

Shadows Rise

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[Safe House | Duellum 19th | Late Evening]

“What do you mean, I lose? I thought I had a good hand.”

“You would have a great hand if you used a Knight card.”

“Wait, I thought you said a Wolf card can take the place of a Knight . . .”

“You’re not paying attention. You can’t use a Wolf card if you’re playing a Diplomatic hand.”

“This game makes no sense!”

Sebastian stirred heavily with an annoyed huff. Kyle and Gerald’s bickering muffled through the cabin’s wall, but it was clear that Kyle’s aggravation was getting the best of him.

“Rivers,” Gabrielle cut in with her usual monotone, “Keep it down.”

Sebastian couldn’t understand what Kyle’s response was, the words too soft to make out, but his tone was apologetic.

In the days following his encounter with the Wolves, Sebastian’s perception of the world had been limited to blurred glimpses and muffled sounds. Incoherent thoughts faded in and out before he could put in the effort to speak. Chills, and uncomfortable warmth. Stabs of pain, burning numbness, and the familiar whispers constantly luring him back to sleep. His moments of consciousness came with the vague awareness of drinking water, tasting vegetable broth, or being prodded in one way or another. In the deep recesses of his mind he was aware of his situation. He wanted to open his eyes; react, but his body couldn’t muster the energy.

What finally threw him out of the dense fog of unconsciousness sounded foreign. A soft, melodic, strum. At first he assumed he’d imagined it—concluded it must have been part of a dream—but as it progressed, he grew increasingly curious to the point where he actually deemed it worth the effort of opening his eyes.

The one bedroom in the safe house was almost the same size as the one he occupied in the Outpost. The space was cramped with two beds and a small table. Gabrielle occupied the only chair in the room. Balanced on two legs, she propped the chair’s back against the wall, resting her feet on the unoccupied bed. Her fingers plucked the strings of a small instrument she held close to her chest. It didn’t look like anything he’d seen; even in books. “Wha’s that?”

Gabrielle stopped playing and peeked at him from under the brim of her hat. “Pardon?”

Sebastian tried to sit up, but groaned and dropped back down on his pillow. “That . . . What is it?”

Gabrielle let her feet drop to the ground and straightened in her seat, holding up the instrument so that Sebastian could have a thorough look. “It’s a harp.”

Sebastian hummed acknowledgment, still struggling in remaining awake. The instrument was simple; strings on a dark wooden frame. Unadorned. Home-made. “It’s child-sized.”

“I’d rather think of it as portable.”

“Guess that’s one way to look at it.” Sebastian groaned, once again trying to sit up. “How long have we been here?”

“Five days. You are quite unfit for travel. I’m sure you’ve noticed.”

Sebastian once again dropped down on the bed with a strained laugh. It hurt. “Ow. No shit.” He glanced over at Gabrielle, anticipating a scolding. “Sorry.”

“You almost died. I can excuse you this time.”

Sebastian breathed another laugh. It was soft enough this time to only cause mild discomfort. “Not up for kicking a kid while he’s down, huh?”

Gabrielle snorted. “I wouldn’t assume that if I were you, Rivers.”

Sebastian nodded, taking a deep breath and making yet another attempt to sit up, actually succeeding this time. “Wouldn’t have taken you for being a musician.”

“What would you have taken me for?”

Sebastian frowned as he pondered the question. “Fair point. It’s just hard to imagine you having much of a life outside of this. No offense.”

Gabrielle leaned forward in her chair, the front legs scratching against the old wooden floors and pulled up her travel bag from the floor. Carefully, she placed the harp inside. “We were all someone else before.”

“Another fair point.”

“It seems I’m just full of them today.”

Sebastian shook his head, amused. Another quick glance around the room revealed that his sword had been left beside his bed; presumably by Johanna, propped against the wall, the same way he would keep it in the Outpost. “Hmph. I didn’t even get to use it.”

Gabrielle followed his gaze, then reached for the sword. “You’ve heard the expression ‘live to fight another day’ before. Surely I can spare us both that speech.” She drew the blade from its scabbard, examining it under the flickering candlelight. “You can’t find a blade like this in Valcrest.”

“No. No, you can’t.”

“I’ve traveled to Mistvale once. Not the friendliest of countries, but their weaponsmithing makes up for their lack of courtesy.”

“Is that where you learned?”

“No, but my mentor trained there.”

Sebastian once again chuckled, though this time it turned into a small coughing fit. “I must have really almost died if you’re actually answering my questions.”

“If you ‘almost died’ any more, you would have died for real, yes. However, don’t think that’s the way to get answers out of me under normal circumstances.”

Sebastian snorted through another small cough. “Noted. So, why are you answering my questions?”

Gabrielle turned to the table and poured water from a small jug into a cup for him. “Because I want to know about this sword.”

“Ah. I see how it is.” Sebastian took the cup with a small smirk. “I’m not getting it for free, then.”

“Not at all.”

Sebastian drank the water in one large gulp, breathing out a soft sigh at the end. “It’s kind of a long story. I don’t know many of the details.”

“Do you have any other engagements at this point, Rivers?”

“Guess not, no.” He held the empty cup out to her. “May I have some more, please?”

“Of course.” Gabrielle refilled the cup and gave it back to him. “Are you hungry?”

“Not really. At least not yet, thank you.” Sebastian sipped the water this time, holding on to the cup. “My parents were from Mistvale. Dad’s family was wealthy, influential; you know. . . and my mother wasn’t quite what they had in mind for him. She was an orphan, made money selling flowers to get by; a peasant. They met, they fell in love, my grandparents disapproved but they got married anyway. So, my dad was pretty much disowned right then and there.”

“I’m assuming that’s why they came to Valcrest, then.”

Sebastian nodded. “Yeah. Dad was in the military back in the day; something close to a Knight, but he made a living here as a lumberjack. He liked to talk about . . . Being a warrior . . . Honor and stuff like that, though.” He frowned as he took another sip of water. “Anyway, around the time mom got pregnant for the second time, dad got a letter that our grandfather was dying and wanted to see him. He wasn’t sure about it, but . . . Being the old man’s dying wish, he decided to make the trip. He figured he could make it home before the birth. He left Katherine with instructions to run to the nearest neighbor in case something happened and off he went.” Sebastian paused, taking another drink of water and shooting the door a wary glance.

“Your brother is outside with Johanna.”

“Is that safe?”

“Relatively so, yes.”

“Alright.” Sebastian groaned, trying to make himself a little more comfortable. “So, yeah, dad went back to see his father one last time before he died. Mom and Katherine stayed behind on their own. And in theory, that wouldn’t have been a problem.”

“I’m sensing there was a problem.”

“I’m getting to that, yes. Our dad was an only child. At the end of his life, our grandfather started to regret pushing him away. He didn’t have a lot of time to make up for it, but he did put dad back on his will. He also had two swords made for his children. Since he wouldn’t have a chance to meet us.” Sebastian snorted a small laugh. “Two swords; for his two children.”

“I see.” Gabrielle kept her eyes on him as she waited for the story to continue.

“No one knew there were two of us. On top of that, mom went into labor early. By the time dad came back he was a rich man, and a single father. He engraved the swords, assigned one to Kyle and one to me. When he built us a nicer house they were mounted on the wall above the mantelpiece. After Katherine died, I don’t know why, I decided to go back for them.”

Gabrielle tapped the symbol engraved on the side of the blade. “What does it mean?”

“Justice. Kyle’s says, ‘Honor’. I think it has something to do with our family crest, but any desire dad might have had to teach us about our heritage died the night we were born.”

Gabrielle snorted softly. “An unfitting name for a sword if there ever was one. Definitely something a knight would do.”

Sebastian couldn’t help but laugh at that, though it was bitter. “He died when we were six and Kat was fourteen. Drank himself sick. She resented him for it. Not that she would say it, but I know she did.”

Gabrielle nodded, pushing the sword back into its scabbard and setting it down beside the bed. “You answered my question, but . . . Where did the Wolves come into this story?”

“I can tell you, but . . . Not for free.”

“I suppose that’s fair.”

“After dad died, Katherine became our legal guardian. She also inherited everything we owned. At fourteen years old, apparently you’re old enough for that.”

“According to Blackpond laws, yes.”

“Funny thing about Blackpond laws, too. If you don’t register your children as legal citizens at birth, they’re not entitled to anything you own. Something our father must have known, but . . . I assume it slipped his mind, all things considered. Katherine was oblivious and . . . Kyle and I had it read to us word for word when we arrived at the City Orphanage. Right after the ‘we’re sorry your whole family is dead’ speech.”

“So, your sister was killed for the inheritance? I thought your father was an only child.”

“He was an only child, but he had a cousin who conveniently showed up with the proper documents, took everything that was ours and dumped us in the orphanage before Kat’s body was even cold.”

“Hm. I’m starting to see the picture.”

“When, uh . . . When I decided to sneak back home and get the swords, I found some stuff. Documents. Letters. One of them was half-written on our father’s desk. He was thanking someone for referring him to the Inn. I didn’t make too much of it right then, but after we started roaming the streets, I started to ask around. Thieves know a whole lot about everything that goes on within a city’s walls. They warned us, loud and clear, to stay away from the Wolfpack. When Kyle tried to insist they told us if they ever caught us in their territory again they’d slit our throats. They didn’t need the kind of trouble we were trying to stir up.”

“Seems like you were given sound advice, which you then went on to ignore.”

“You say that like we didn’t try. We tried.”

“One more question then: why direct your anger at the Wolves? You do realize they were contracted to kill your sister.”

“If it happened any other way, maybe I wouldn’t be so angry. I understand that he was the one who contracted the Wolves. If not the Wolves, it would have been someone else, but . . .” Sebastian ran one hand over his eyes, letting it cover his face beyond what would be necessary. “They sent in a girl about her age, pretending to sell flowers like our mom used to do. Carrying white roses; my sister’s favorite flower. That . . . They knew how to get her to open the door. They got to know her in some capacity; somehow. Katherine wasn’t a fighter. Did they really need to do all of that? Did they really need to earn her trust?”

“Honestly? No.”

“That’s what I thought.” Sebastian lowered his hand and finished the rest of his water at once, offering Gabrielle the empty cup. “Thank you.”

She placed the cup on the table and once again leaned back in her chair. “So . . . What’s your price, then?”

Sebastian hummed in thought, struggling to lie back down. “What’s with the hat?”

“My hat?”

“Yes. You only take it off at the table. Which is actually kind of amusing; I imagine your mother had something to do with that. That and, you know . . .” He attempted to mimic her usual monotone. “. . . Language, Rivers.”

Gabrielle snorted, a little taken aback. “You want to know about the hat or my mother?”

“The hat.”

“It was my brother’s. He let me have it as a birthday present when I turned eighteen.”

“He gave you his hat as a birthday present?”

“We weren’t in a position to be throwing any parties at the time. And he was very attached to it.”

“So it was like a meaningful gesture. I get it.”

“Something of the sort, yes.”

“I take it you were close.”

“He was a hotheaded idiot who refused to act his own age, and he infuriated me regularly, but . . . Yes.”

“I know the feeling.”

“Your brother acts exactly his age. My brothers were older than me.”

Sebastian raised an eyebrow. “Brothers?”

“That’s a different question. Don’t push it.”

Sebastian snorted softly. “Was the harp a birthday present too?”

Gabrielle’s tone hardened just a small increment. “What did I just say, Rivers?”

“I’m sorry, you’re right.” Sebastian readjusted until he was a little less uncomfortable, then glanced over. “Are we staying here until I’m well enough to travel?”

“That is the plan, yes. Hopefully it goes well. We don’t usually remain in safe houses for long.”

Sebastian nodded. “If I tell you something, can I ask another question?”

“No.” Gabrielle once again propped her feet up on the empty bed. “But if you tell me something, I might tell you something.”

“Sounds fair.” Despite agreeing to the terms, Sebastian hesitated for a long moment before speaking up. “Alright, so… I never told Kyle this, but… When I went back home to get the swords, and I saw those documents scattered on the desk… He was there. Asleep. I had my sword right in my hand. If I wanted to, I could have just killed him right there. I thought about it.”

“And yet, you didn’t.”

“No. I couldn’t bring myself to do it at the time.”

“At the time? Do you think if the opportunity presented itself today, you would actually go through with it?”

“I don’t know what that says about me, exactly, but I’m sure that I would.”

Gabrielle hummed, watching him carefully under the brim of her hat. “That’s a bold statement.”

“Taking these past months into consideration… It doesn’t really feel like it is.”

“Alright.” Gabrielle glanced towards the door for a weary moment. “If you tell Johanna about this, you’ll wish that arrow killed you. Are we understood?”

Sebastian flinched with a small choked sound. “Sure?”

“Today was my twenty-ninth birthday.”

Surprise crossed Sebastian’s face. “Oh. And you don’t want Jo to make a big deal of it.”

“Correct.”

“Maybe you should just let her, you know? My sister liked to say that if someone is happy that you’re alive, they should be allowed to show it at least once a year.”

“All due respect to your sister, she never met Johanna.”

That drew another laugh from him, followed by a pained wheeze. “Ow, ha… Okay, another valid point.”

“As for your question. I think the only thing this says about you is that… You were someone else before this. Nothing more.”

The sound of the front door creaking open interrupted before Sebastian could ask any questions. Kyle was the first to speak up, with little to no regard for volume. “I shot a possum and Jo wants to eat it.”

Jo’s comment, as usual, was too soft to make out, but Gerald snorted a sleepy chuckle in response. “I wouldn’t go as far as to say that ‘it tastes like chicken’, but beggars can’t be choosers, can they?”

As Kyle continued to complain about something he would, without a doubt, eat anyway, the door once again opened and closed, signaling Gerald’s exit. Sebastian imagined they had worked out some sort of schedule and it was now his turn to patrol outside. Meanwhile, the sounds of pots and pans clanging in the kitchen let him know that Jo wasn’t bluffing about eating the possum. After a couple of minutes Kyle peered into the room. His pale complexion and the dark circles under his eyes gave away concern and sleep deprivation, but he opened a broad smile upon seeing Sebastian awake. “Hey. Welcome back to the world of the living.”

“Thanks. It’s nice to be back. Even if my first meal is going to be possum.”

“Jo says it tastes like chicken. I’m not very convinced.”

“Can’t be worse than rat.”

“Scorched, unseasoned rat.” Kyle chuckled, taking up the unoccupied bed and kicking off his boots.

Gabrielle glanced at him. “Aren’t you going to help Johanna in the kitchen?”

Kyle stretched with a small groan. “I was, but she shooed me. Said I’m not getting enough rest.”

Gabrielle nodded and stood up. “She may have a point. I’ll go and help her get dinner ready. You should both try to get a couple more hours of sleep in the meantime.”

Sebastian snorted softly. “Right. I definitely haven’t been sleeping enough lately.”

“Nonetheless.” Gabrielle stated.

Kyle watched her exit the room and shook his head. “She’s one to talk. Don’t think I’ve seen her sleep since we got here.”

“Sooner or later, she’ll have to.” Sebastian rubbed his eyes with an exhausted groan. “So… You wanna tell me about that game you and Gerald were yelling about?”

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