Chasing the Dark Sea

No magic, no heroes, only the absurd struggle of a young man too willful to be sane, too clever to be compassionate, and too infatuated to be clever. Valiann's self-made quest to save his dilapidated world from the Haze breaks him down more than evil ever could, and as the oblivious millions shed their blood over outdated ideals, the cliff edge approaches, the end of yet another pointless age...

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7. Forum (1/2)

Valiann was dozing off next to Hanni’s bed when Andariel rushed into the infirmary, bringing the news they have all been expecting since their return to the Citadel more than a month ago. A Thaumian convoy has arrived and was meeting with the Headmaster. Judging from the grim faces of the senior Keepers, a friendly exchange was not what had transpired.

Valiann stood up immediately. ‘This is about me.’

‘And me,’ Hanni added, sitting up from his bed only to fall down again.

Andariel patted Hanni on the head. ‘You stay put. I’ll go with him,’ she added as Valiann looked at her, ‘you left me out last time and look what happened. Of course I’m coming with.’

They rushed to the top floor of the Cadet wing, where Headmaster’s office had the entire floor for itself. An imposing double door barred the entrance; it was flanked by a pair of life-sized statues depicting the Citadel’s founders, a young man with swept back hair and bulky eyeglasses and a woman carrying a square board in one hand and a conical flask in the other. They both wore thin, knee-length robes.

Valiann was about to pick up the handle and knock when he felt Andariel’s Haze rise up. ‘Step back, they are coming out!’ she whispered.

His first instinct was to hide but he rejected it immediately. Grabbing Andariel’s hand, they hurried to the small alcove opposite the entrance, making it appear as if they have been waiting there for the meeting to finish and not about to budge in.

His heart was squirming. There was no reason to be nervous, not when he has known about the inevitable punishment for weeks, yet still his hands and lips trembled as if in shock. He couldn’t return Andariel’s gaze, but words he would never utter in front of another soul were coming out by themselves.

‘I’m afraid,’ he said.

Sweating though his hand must be Andariel held it tightly, her fingers entwined with his. ‘We’re in this together,’ she declared.

The doors swung open and the Headmaster walked out with a middle-aged man who wore a spotless suit and had not a single strand of hair. The slant of his eyebrows made a permanent scowl, as if everything in sight was displeasing.

The Headmaster saw them and gestured to his guest.

‘Valiann Del, this is Ambassador Ra’Charell from the Autonomy. He has voiced a few concerns regarding your recent behaviour in the field.’

Valiann bowed wordlessly and was surprised to see a half measure from Ra’Charell in return.

‘So it is you. I hope, for your sake, that your foolishness is exceeded by your good sense.’

‘Tomorrow morning there will be a forum in the Aethenum with the Ambassador, attended by the entire Cadetship and all Keepers currently in residence,’ the Headmaster continued, ‘the future relationship between our two institutions, as well as your role in it, Cadet, will be discussed with full disclosure in front of the faculty. You will attend and render public what you have told me, so there could be no misunderstandings or misplaced demands.’

Once again Valiann bowed.

‘I look forward to leaving this matter behind us,’ Ra’Charell said, ‘and be at ease, the Grand Marshall has personally guaranteed your safety.’ With that he walked off, the creases of his suit creaking. Before following his guest, the Headmaster gave Valiann a look of faint incredulity.

The next few minutes blurred by. Andariel dragged Valiann along a corridor, pretending to be oblivious to the whispers around them, and didn’t stop until they were alone in the empty room under the second floor staircase.

It was a shoebox Valiann used as a hidden study, with a single cramped desk and two baby-sized stools. Papers were everywhere, some neatly stacked in a corner, most being noisy carpet. The window was a hole in the wall but the panes were squeaky clean, and the spring sun cozied the place up nicely.

Valiann found himself sat down behind his desk. Unfinished diagrams, equations on corners of scraps, calendar for the year before; they greeted him with a familiar musk. He picked up a well-chewed pencil out of habit and began drawing nonsensical shapes.

‘I can deal with this,’ he managed to say, ‘I already know what to do.’

Andariel gave him a cup of water, which he gulped down. ‘I’ve never seen you so nervous, not even during the Trials.’

‘I shouldn’t have taken the golems. Not like that.’

‘Do you regret it?’

Valiann recalled the golems digging up a large canal out of the mud bank in a mere hour, flooding the ancient shaft and driving away the Haze.

‘We helped a lot of people,’ he replied.

‘That’s not my question.’

‘I’ll not allow myself any more regrets. I’ve enough.’

He was thinking of that failed cleansing during the Trials again; in fact, there was rarely a moment this was not on his mind. Due to his incompetence, to this day the wild Haze was embedded in Andariel’s heart tissue and could not be removed without killing her. To this day she has not blamed him for it. In fact, it might be better for her to hate him, instead of this kindness.

Andariel sat on the edge of the desk and gently combed his hair. ‘There must’ve been another way. You were in too much of a rush.’

‘I know,’ Valiann said, ‘but the days we’ve wasted at that camp – I couldn’t wait.’

Andariel gazed outside the little window. Pillowy clouds have gathered around the sun, dampening its light. ‘There’s going to be rain again. It will rain next year too, and every year after that. The young elms in the courtyard will grow and be thankful for every one of them, and worry not that this year’s rain differs from the last, and that last year’s will never return, for it remembers only their kindness.’

‘You are definitely not helping.’ Valiann said miserably.

‘From now on I’m coming with, wherever you and Hanni go,’ she said, and looked surprised as Valiann began to cry.

 

The forum.

Most of the two thousand Cadets gathered in the Aethenum have never attempted the Trials, and therefore possess neither an Affinity nor the power to cleanse Haze corruption. Their faces were no more than indistinct blobs of pink, inconsequential in the grand scheme of things yet hollering to be heard.

Valiann closed his eyes and wished he could shut his ears as well. He sat centre stage with only Hanni by his side, while senior Keepers sat in two rows by the right and the Ambassador with two attendants on the left. The audience was unusually rowdy, for it was made up of mostly Marish Cadets sent here by their families to gain the honour of studying at the Citadel. As a rule, they hated Thaumians in all shapes and sizes.

Formalities and declarations came and went. Ra’Charell stood up, his dark suit shining on the brilliant stage, and wasted not a single breath.

‘I have made clear the position of the Autonomy,’ he said, ‘these two Cadets have stolen our most prized technology and the Grand Marshall demands its return. In exchange for sparing their lives, the Marshall asks for their lifelong tenure at our manufactory. It is a fair request.’

Keeper Temperance, the middle-aged woman who has led every expedition into Halleaufel for the last decade and revered by the Cadets as a matriarch of sorts, was the first to reply, ‘your displeasure is understandable but unjustified, Ambassador. I for one would like to hear the turn of events from the Cadet before passing judgement.’

Valiann saw Ra’Charell opening his mouth and promptly stood. ‘As you wish Keeper. It is a lengthy tale; I will start from our second encounter with a Remnant at the refugee camp…’

He has never talked so much in his life. The audience inexplicably gasped at his recount of battling the Remnant even though it was but a trivial detail. The Ambassador’s eyes spewed fire at the mention of his precious golems writhing in the mud like upturned turtles, and the dominantly Marish Cadets roared when he mentioned how princess Lynia, a national idol of sorts as he understood it, tried to keep the golems for herself.

Ra’Charell spoke up the moment the recount ended, ‘I fail to see the relation between your actions and the Citadel’s objective of cleansing the Haze, Valiann Del, and even if I did the Grand Marshall would not tolerate her golems being used for any purpose but hers.’

‘Valiann made it plenty clear what we’re going to do with it: run the experiment to beat the Haze, humanity’s common enemy,’ Hanni, whose leg and hip were still bound by casts and supports, said.

‘So it is, Han’Nietzeul, but each of us has different priorities, and yours, or the Citadel’s, should not supersede that of others just because you consider it more important. Processes of civil negotiation must be initiated in order to disclose our conflicts of interest before they set us against each other, not after.’

‘Didn’t negotiate when you started sending Remnants everywhere did you? When was that particular conflict of interest disclosed?’ Hanni asked bluntly. The Aethenum went quiet.  

‘Watch your tongue, Cadet,’ the Head warned, ‘this forum is not the place for accusations of that nature.’

‘I think this is a clear case of rogue conduct.’ Keeper Tolvinthiel, sitting on the immediate right of the Head, said, his unnaturally loud voice eclipsing everyone else’s, ‘though Cadet Valiann Del’s intention is noble, to act on his own without approval violates our laws. A tribunal of the Seats should be convened to determine his punishment.’

‘And what would that punishment be, if I may?’ the Ambassador asked.

There was brief debate amongst the Keepers, then Tolvinthiel replied, ‘a case like this, two-year academic detention, where the Cadet will be confined to a cell and conduct relevant research in his own capacity.’

Ra’Charell was visibly incensed. ‘Is this a joke? The ends of a schoolyard brawl?’

‘We’ve no treaty between our institutions, Ambassador, nor have we the desire for one. As such no obligation exists for us to sanction the Cadet based on actions committed against your interests,’ the Head said as he stood up and gestured to the audience, ‘not to mention any punishment preventing our Cadets from combating the Haze, be it in practice or theory, will not be given under any circumstance. They are only evicted from the Citadel if they no longer wish to be here.’

‘A sound argument,’ Ra’Charell said, his face ugly, ‘a Cadet may steal, rape, and murder in the name of fighting the Haze, without fear of punishment: that is what you are telling me, Hi’Taunas.’

The stage shuddered as Tolvinthiel shot to his feet and bellowed loud enough to dim the lights. ‘You go too far! For thirty years we have tolerated your people’s encroachment on the forbidden methods -’

The Head raised a hand and Tolvinthiel went quiet immediately, though angry veins still pulsed on his forehead. ‘I assure you Ambassador, the Citadel adequately educates its Cadets on common decency and adheres to moral standards.’

‘Then what of our golems? Did their theft not violate your laws?’

‘That is, as you’ve aptly said, a result of our differing priorities,’ the Head said, ‘and as we’ve just heard, their presence was required in a cleansing.’

‘I saw the flimsy construction by the Ilmarys,’ came the response, ‘though I concede it would have required considerable effort otherwise, to steal our golems for such a purpose was excessive and unnecessary. Would you not agree, Valiann Del?’

‘It is up to those in the field -’ the Head began.

‘Would you not agree, Valiann Del?’

All eyes were on him, their combined weight a thousand tiny brands burning into his skin.

‘Necessity is subjective,’ Valiann replied, ‘I took them to cleanse the Haze from that refugee camp, and to use them in my experiment. They are necessary to me.’

‘Drivel. Three thousand Thaumians died days after your little intrusion because their golems weren’t there protect them from the Marish river crossing. Who is to blame for their deaths?’

This was getting annoying.

‘Those who sent them to war in the first place, I suspect,’ Valiann said, ‘I can see that you are displeased, Ambassador, so I will apologise. I am sorry for causing you so much trouble, coming all the way here. But I will not return the golems.’

‘A poorer apology I’ve never heard.’

‘But it is what I’m giving you. However, I understand that the Grand Marshall will not rest easy if you return empty-handed, so I have prepared something,’ he said, pulling out a scrappy notebook from his pocket, ‘I have detailed here how I managed to activate golems using a blank Master Cube. Take it, and go fix your machines.’

‘It is not enough to simply –’

‘Take it and leave, or I tell everyone how I did it.’

Ra’Charell’s eyes ballooned with anger. ‘What did you say?’

There was stunned silence as the Keepers looked at each other in confusion and the crowd murmured. Hanni fidgeted in his seat. Valiann kept his hand extended and said nothing.

Ra’Charell stared him down for a full minute, perhaps waiting for a reply. Then he said slowly, ‘what of its authenticity?’

‘Have a look for yourself,’ Valiann said, putting the notebook in his hand.

The Ambassador scanned through pages of notes and diagrams, clearly not understanding a single word but not about to admit so. After what looked like a thorough examination from cover to cover, Ra’Charell lingered on the last page as if it alone contained an encyclopaedia.

‘This is a curious solution. And surprising,’ the Head spoke up.

‘With your permission, Headmaster,’ said Valiann.

‘It seems that it is not needed.’

‘This isn’t enough,’ Ra’Charell finally said, ‘you are sorely mistaken if you think this stack of paper can pardon your wrongdoing.’

‘Would you rather that I publish its contents instead? In the Imperial Compendium perhaps, so that everyone in the Empire knows how to use your golems?’ Valiann asked, and received the ugliest look he has ever known.

‘You would allow this, Hi’Taunas? Blackmailing the Autonomy?’ Ra’Charell turned to the Head, ‘I’d rather it not come to this.’

‘You jest, Ambassador. I had no idea this was going to happen,’ the Head replied, and showed no sign that the blackmailing was upsetting him in the slightest.

Ra’Charell tugged at the collar of his suit and his fingertips brushed against a thin chain concealed underneath. He turned in such a way that all who sat on the stage had a glimpse of the black pendant around his neck.

‘The Grand Marshall will be informed of this unsatisfactory resolution, and the thought of her wrath makes me pity those who would bear it. I implore you one last time to give us Valiann Del, for your own sake.’

Tolvinthiel’s face was a wall of stone. ‘It is poor taste to act so in the Citadel.’

Keeper Temperance spoke coldly, ‘do you have any idea what Remnants are to us, Ambassador, and how far we would go to eliminate them? Cease now this dangerous road your people have set upon, for it will end, as you well know, in tragedy.’

Ra’Charell’s face changed; it was no longer hidden underneath a mask of reason.

‘I see you Citadel folk, ever the jewels of humanity, are still as ignorant of our suffering as ever. In that case this forum is over,’ the Ambassador said, straightening his sleeves, ‘but you and I are only just getting acquainted, Valiann Del. You will soon realise the consequences of your theft, and I’d love to be there to see your face when it happens. The sight would surely bring me joy.’

With that Ra’Charell stormed off the stage and never looked back. A button broke off his suit pocket as he stowed away Valiann’s notebook; It was made of some heavy, dark metal, and knelled like a broken bell as it hit the floor. 

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