26 Mar Foul And Fair: Is Whispering Nothing? Chapter 3
I still haven’t eaten, and I can’t seem to bring myself to solve that particular problem. I’ve been wandering through town since my session ended, caught up in my thoughts, agitated. Seeing things out of the corner of my eye and breathing too shallow when I remember to at all. It’s starting to get dark and cold and I should go somewhere and find some way to settle down before the Watch starts clearing the streets for the night. I have no idea what time it is, actually. I don’t know how close we are to curfew, and I consider, for a moment, getting myself thrown in jail for the night. It wouldn’t just be jail, though, and it wouldn’t just be one night.
I pause at the bulletin board that hangs outside Town Hall. Lamplighters have already illuminated it, so there’s no problem reading the various postings…and I find what I’m looking for. A way to feel better. Annie is playing again, and this time I’m free to watch and listen, see her dance to her own song like there’s no one else around. The nerves are melting away. This is better than medication, but Dr. Plutony knew that. He got me thinking about this on purpose, and now we have a stroke of luck. Everything is going to fine, and I’m going to be distracted for the rest of the day. I walk right past my hostel and keep going. Have to get a good spot on the floor and make sure I spend money so no one minds me staying for hours. I’m not paying attention to my surroundings more than the bare minimum—just enough to navigate—when I hear a voice call out behind me.
I stop and turn, and no one is there. Still looking behind me, only turning my head back a few strides in, I continue my walk. It’s not far now. There are footsteps behind me, prickling at my neck, or maybe there aren’t. I don’t look again because looking would make me paranoid and I’m having a good night. Instead, I lower my head and keep walking—The Rusty Gear isn’t far, and everything will be better once I get there. Nothing exists but The Rusty Gear. There’s a man standing in a closed doorway across the street, wearing armor like a member of the Watch, but painted black and with no weapons I can see, smiling like he’s just found something that was missing for a long time. He looks at me, right in the face, and then his eyes dart behind me. I can’t resist anymore, so I tun my head.
It’s half a whisper, and it was back the way I was facing, so I turn again. Nobody there but the soldier or guard or watchman or whatever he is, and his eyes have wandered off into space now. He didn’t whisper to me. No one is whispering to me, it’s just too quiet and I just have the slightest edge of paranoia left that I haven’t been able to shake and that’s all this is. I take a deep breath and finish walking, humming to myself the rest of the way to block out the sound of the following footsteps, the sound that I’m sure isn’t really there. It’s eight blocks to the door and I don’t remember a single step of it by the time I’m there.
It’s still early, too early to arrive for the show, but I go in just the same. I’ve got a pocket with a modest amount of money in it, after all—it doesn’t matter that it’s mostly empty, nor that the phantom footsteps seem like they follow me in. The Rusty Gear is configured much like a bar, to be honest, so I sit at the bar part of it, away from the door, and get myself a drink. I stay on the stool and I drink the drink and everything is fine. There’s a band that isn’t Annie of DuPont playing first and they are not good. They drown out the footsteps but they don’t keep my mind from wandering, and I have a second drink to keep the whispering to a minimum. This is probably a bad choice. After the opening band finishes, I abandon the safety of my stool and walk closer to the stage. It’s dark out here, and there are dozens of people I don’t know and I’m not afraid of this fact. I can be around people. There’s no problem with being around people.
“Ian. That’s your name, right?”
I can’t help spinning around this time, my heart up in my throat. Now the crowd of people seems menacing and confusing and everywhere, but no one is looking at me and no one knows me and no one is talking to me. No one said my name. No one. I can hear my pulse and my mouth is dry, and I’m scanning the darkened room for nothing, stretching to see over people’s–is that the armored man? No. No, it couldn’t be—he’s not wearing armor. Just looks similar, and my head is playing tricks on me. Behind me, someone strums a guitar. The wait is over, and I take another deep breath. The nerves go back into their hiding places. This is a time for excitement and fear is not welcome.
“Is everyone having a good time tonight?”
People cheer in response. Annie is loud enough to command the attention of everyone in the room. They know her, and in this space we all know the same things. The music builds up behind her, three accompanists and one voice. It gets louder and harder and clean and beautiful and I’m standing stock still and entranced, not even seeing anything anymore. I hear it and I feel the vibrations wash over me and everything feels safer. There are lamps up above the stage, strategically hooded to point beams of light right at her. It glints off the pearls she’s wearing and forms glowing halo that follows her as she moves, surrounding her in and almost physical thing that melts into the music and thickens as her voice rises and falls. This room is full of people moving and talking and existing but I am alone and I’m not afraid, awash if reds, greens, and yellows made of sound getting louder and higher and shivers run down my spine. It’s all that matters, and by the gods that voice and that dress and….And then quiet, behind me, cutting through it and shattering this wonderful, magical place:
“Yeah, that’s him. Just circle around.”
The same voice, whispering, but it doesn’t matter when I’ve fixed on the sound. The music is gone from my focus and I turn around, but everyone looks the same. No one is coming, no one is looking, no one is circling…but there are footsteps behind me. Spinning back, I see the man who looks like the man who was wearing black armor and watching me, but he’s looking up at the stage and not coming towards me.
“He knows! Grab him!”
I don’t even think about it, that automatic part of my brain kicks in and starts shoving through the crowd just as fast as I can. I’m big and I’m strong, but there are a lot of people around me and there isn’t a lot of room to move and my blind shoving has set the crowd churning, creating tension and conflict and a distraction and drawing attention and creating danger. People are jumping and bouncing and crashing and shoving all around me, not just into me but into each other in this chaos that seems to know no alliances and I’m losing sense of the direction I’m traveling, having a harder and harder to keep my feet under me. A hand lands on my wrist, fingers closing around my sleeve.
“The Whisperer Awaits a Sacrifice.”
I jerk my arm forward automatically, never stop to see—and someone falls in front of me, all the way to the ground. I step over them and start pushing harder, not even trying not to crash through people anymore, using my shoulders and forearms and elbows and legs and whatever I can muster to get the bodies out of my way so I can get the hell out of here. Some part of me is aware that the song has ended and everything is quieter and the direction of things has changed. A hand is on the back of my neck now, squeezing hard and hurting me. I swing a blind elbow up at the person holding onto me. “Let me go,” I shout, “I have to get out of here!”
The hand on me is huge and strong, and my elbow swings through nothing. Whoever has me is pushing the same direction I was going, towards the door, and suddenly I don’t want to go out there anymore. Maybe that’s what they want, whoever they are. But the hand has a voice now. “You’re damn right you’re getting out of here!”
We get to the door and my captor, with fingerless gloves on, throws it open, pushes me over the threshold, and kicks my ankles out from under me as I stumble. I have no choice but to tumble into the frozen street face first. The mug I was holding, with the beer I’ve barely touched, shatters under my weight. I’m vaguely aware of my blood mixing with the drink as the door slams shut behind me. No one is rushing over to grab me, though. The people who were circling me…they’re not there. They never were. I push myself up off the ground and rub the blood running down my forehead away from my eye.
“The Whisperer grows impatient, Ian of Kensing, Ian the man, Ian the weak. The Whisperer demands control.”
I’m shivering and struggling up to my feet. Arm hurts, legs hurt, face hurts, head hurts, and I’m bleeding and freezing and can’t seem to get myself upright. The Whisperer isn’t real. I know the Whisperer isn’t real. It’s all just me.
Something wakes me up, and I curl into a ball instinctively. Apparently I’m lying on the floor, holding an empty glass, in terrible pain. I have no idea how long it’s been, nor how I got here, but I know why my face hurts and I remember that something startled me awake. Something got my heart pounding and I can’t place what it is. In front of me, on the floor, are seven little vials meant to hold my medicine. They’ve all been opened and flipped upside down, and the floor is stained blackish green from their contents. The smell hanging in the air. Did I do that? I must have done that. I grab the leg of the nearby table and stand myself up, but everything hurts, my neck most of all. I can’t decide if the mess or the pain is less important. How long has it been?
The Whisperer has gone quiet.
There’s a pounding on my door. The mystery is solved. Well, that first one. I take a deep breath, which reveals a new source of pain in my ribs, then stagger over to the door of my little room. There’s no peephole to check, but there’s no lock, either. This person could have just walked in at any time. It’s a safe place to live. I pull open the door, and there’s a man standing there in some kind of a uniform, like ceremonial armor that probably isn’t designed for real fighting, because it’s green and filigreed with symbols, most of which I don’t know, without a scratch on it. He has a big shield on his back, and the shape matches the symbol on the letter, and a huge head that’s almost a cube, where his jaw is almost as wide as his forehead. He’s almost as tall as me and twice as wide and looking into my eyes like he knew exactly where they were going to be before I opened the door. I shudder and take a step back, nearly tripping over my own feet as I go. My limbs feel heavy and unmovable, and there are no other exits. I can’t run away.
He keeps staring at me, expressionless, like he’s waiting for something. I need to take my medicine. I can’t talk to this man. I can’t. As in I actually open my mouth, and sounds fail to come out. I manage to produce something like a click from my throat, and that’s it. He reaches out a hand to shake mine, as if this interaction has been completely unremarkable to this point. “Ian, my name is Sir Hors of Balting. The Priven has asked me to come and pay you a visit.”
I take his hand and let him do the shaking for us. My voice sounds a little hoarse, and the fat lip I didn’t know I had affects my pronunciation a little, so I sound as bad as I no doubt look. Maybe those facts will help me. Something tells me to try to be friendly. “Oh. Uh. I,” are all the syllables I can push out at first, but now that I’ve made sounds it seems a little easier to attach a few together. He doesn’t look like he’s got anything else to say immediately, and the silence is making me nervous. Time to just say words. “Nice to meet you? I think you might have made a mistake. With choosing me. I have a record, you see.”
“I’ve read your file,” he says with a deep and forceful voice that makes me think this is not a good thing. I wish I’d had a lock. “The relevant portions of it, anyways. You fit our profile perfectly. Your troubles with the Watch, issues with employment, you’re exactly the kind of person we can help.”
The Whisperer stirs somewhere, shifting around, making me aware of its presence. And I want to sound angry, want real rage in my voice, because I’m offended. He’s saying I don’t have anything to lose and I know it’s true. I want the Whisperer to come out but it doesn’t get to, even if I’m angry and I’m off my medicine and this man wants to drag me somewhere to die. He looks like he wants to be even more condescending, and the Whisperer is fighting to peek out. I’m not in control.
“Oh yeah,” it says with my mouth, “look at poor Ian, he has nothing. No one will ever miss him, so we can ship him off to die. He has no friends and his family…” I didn’t want to think about that and the Whisperer sinks. My medicine has seeped into the floorboards, but the Whisperer should know better. His face looks less assured now, though. Perhaps he’s come to understand.
So he frowns and say: “I know what happened, and I know what you think you are. That’s why we chose you. The Priven can offer you a steady job that you won’t lose, a life without constant fear, without giving all of your money to some charlatan alchemist. Without hiding. You’ll belong amongst dozens of others who are just like you, and you won’t have to worry any more. About anything.”
Anything, he says. I’m smiling. He’s lying to me, manipulating me because he knows what I care about, what I worry about. They told him how to get me to listen. I’m not smiling. There are footsteps outside, hard soled shoes, metal plates sliding and bouncing off one another. I walk over to the only window and peek out, but there’s no one there to see. There’s never anyone to see. I don’t look back at him. If he knows what I did he must understand. He’s either a liar or he doesn’t care. “That’s not true,” I’m almost shouting. I want to be shouting. “That doesn’t even make sense. I need my medicine, need Dr. Plutony, I need to be watched. You can’t give me a sword. I am the worst person in the world to hold a sword. Even I don’t know what I’d do.”
His voice is a steady, deep, heavy, emotionless rock of a voice. He says “We do. That’s the point,” like that’s supposed to help. I’m not making him angry or sad. I don’t know if he’s even listening. He may have had this conversation a dozen times already. I’m not special. “We’ve built a stem. We can deal with your problems and give you back control of yourself. More than you ever dreamed of. You don’t need to trust me at my word, obviously. When you come to Balting, a stilt by the name of Inubrix will be able to answer all of your questions.”
“I don’t have any questions,” I snap, “I just want you to leave me alone.”
Not that it matters. He lays a hand on the door, moving that way slowly like this is the end of the visit already. And he keeps on talking. “We can’t do that, Ian. Not yet. But the program will change your mind. It’s also mandatory. We can arrange for your transportation in both directions if you need help.”
This doesn’t sound like an offer. I’m finally hearing an edge to his voice. My voice is still elevated. The Whisperer is waiting, but I still need to calm down. There’s a red haze in my eyes and the footsteps outside the door are marching back and forth in sets of ten, stomping in a nearly deafening rhythm. I nearly have to shout over it. “I’ll take care of myself.”
He starts walking out the door, leaving me with one final thought, “If you fail to appear, the Watch will have no choice but to detain you. You wouldn’t like prison. I believe you already know that.”