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Chapter 3: Kaulo’s Young Lord

The people of Becopton may not have known something was afoot, but Renent did. For days, councilmen and leading merchants came to and from Tormeten’s house. A gap in visits meant only that Tormeten and Xzax were already at similar meetings in Council Hall. Renent did not understand all of this frenetic activity, but its basic cause was apparent.

Much had happened since his family’s pilgrimage three years prior. The lord of Kaulo had died, and his son Renliar assumed leadership at just twenty-two years of age. Despite his youth, he made quite an impression upon the Southerners. He called some sort of assembly, and apparently thousands of Southerners had swarmed to Kaulo. There Renliar delivered an impassioned speech calling for Jaipnite solidarity. Of the seven other Southern cities, five had formed a compact. Only Kelceb (which continued serving as a sanctuary for pilgrims) and Tilial (which thrived on trade with the rest of Naithan), abstained. King Grelesten observed all this, but, as yet, neither the Valley nor Coast took action. The unity of Naithan was fractured.

About a major moon ago, Renliar sent word to the King and other Valley lords that he would tour their cities, ostensibly to encourage trade. However, in the conversations at Tormeten’s house, that explanation smelled of pretext. Becopton was first on the itinerary, and Lord Renliar would stay two days. The first was today.

About midway between sunrise and noon, Renent left the house to wander the streets. He considered going out to the stream but ultimately headed toward Council Hall. He might as well look at this young prodigy, and Renent assumed that Renliar’s delegation was already there.

Besides, seeing Kaulo’s lord would help Renent’s game. He decided about a year ago that as soon as possible, he wanted to see the current lord of each Naithanite city. Crailis, of course, was easy, as were King Grelesten and the five other Valley lords. He had eyed them all at various banquets when they visited Crailis. For the same reason, Renent could also count two from the Coast. The South, though, was difficult. He still had only seen the voluminous Lord Kergerot. That made ten altogether. Eleven remained, so Renliar would be Renent’s halfway point.

As the boy approached Lord Crailis’s house, he wondered what he should do once there. He could not stand outside like those in line for a judge, nor could he enter Council Hall if Renliar’s delegation was confidentially negotiating with the councilmen.

Suddenly, he heard a distant, strange noise. It was both familiar and unfamiliar.

Were those trumpets? No, not quite.

The sound issued from the south. No commons or marketplaces lay between Renent and the southern wall. Those were the only sensible places for a trumpet. He stopped. The din of yelling and stomping now intermingled with the sound. Something was underway.

He headed southward. The noise grew louder. People leaned out of doorways and paused in the street, listening. Some followed Renent, who concluded that whatever this commotion was, it must be near the southern gate.

This guess proved correct. He arrived to find a crowd forming near the gate. Everything else confused him. A huge floating object seemed to have passed through the gate and into the city. It was cloth tied down in metal bands and bore human shape, of sorts. The top resembled a face. Protruding on both sides were arms connected to the head through what must be its torso. Renent realized next that poles upheld the entire body, and disappeared into the crowd. He could just make out men carrying them. Judging from streamers billowing out behind its head (presumably hair) and a distinctive band wrapped around the forehead, Renent surmised that this figure was meant to depict a women.

Through gaps in the crowd, Renent saw more people come through the gate behind the pole bearers. As the statue drew closer to Renent, he identified falkars on the processioners’ necks. These were Jaipnites.

He then realized something else: the gate’s few guards had fallen back. He saw two of them gesture at each other frantically, trying to yell over the noise. Whatever was transpiring had caught them by surprise. Surely, Renent thought, as chief of the wall guard, Tormeten’s pre-approval was necessary for an entrance like this. If the guards did not expect it, his father must not either.

Renent thought this might be an invasion—the first wave of a Southern army that secretly crossed the Liantin. However, that possibility faded as he nudged closer. About ten young women, dressed in blue, green, and yellow robes, passed through the gate next. This was no army.

The source of the original noise followed. A row of three men appeared. Each blew into what looked like an animal’s horn. The sound was compelling although strange in comparison to Becopton’s horns.

Renent caught another glimpse of the gate guards through the growing crowd. They were frantic. Their main function was to collect a small tax from wagons that came to sell food or goods. Most other traffic passed without hindrance. Gate guards might block a drunk from entering the city or question known troublemakers transporting suspicious items, but they were not equipped to face this—whatever this was.

The next processioners stood out from the others. Four men carried a platform on two horizontal poles. On it rested an ornate chair covered in a canopy. Streamers billowed behind it, shimmering. A woman sat on the chair. She was young and beautiful—a trait Renent was becoming old enough to notice. She was so beautiful that Renent briefly wondered if aesthetics were required in order to occupy the chair. Her robe was multicolored. Various precious metals and stones adorned her arms, neck, and forehead. She glistened. Looking from side to side periodically, she smiled—a nonchalant acknowledgment of the many eyes staring at her.

Another huge figure emerged in the gate. Its pole bearers crouched it down to clear the gate’s upper arch. Once through, the object sprang up over the Becoptonites. It was another human figure, but this one was a man.

Someone nearby in the crowd said something.

“That’s Jaipni and Sendora.”

Of course, Renent thought. He stomped his foot for not already realizing it. Memories of various conversations among adults suddenly tied together. That first figure was nothing less than a massive idol of Sendora, the chief god Jaipni’s wife. These women were her priestesses, and the new giant was Jaipni himself.

Who was the woman on the platform, then? The answer soon became apparent. After more trumpeters and processioners marched through the gate, another raised platform followed. This one bore a young man. Renent thought him handsome, strong, and—most of all—confident. He held one motionless hand above his head—an apparent salute to the onlookers. The symbolism was now complete in Renent’s mind. Each idol mirrored the man and the woman. Renliar was the human parallel to a god, as his wife was to a goddess.

 

◙ ◙ ◙

 

Renent raced down back alleys and tried to pass the procession. He had merely gawked when it first passed him. Then he came to his senses. Action was necessary. After all, he counted sixty or seventy Jaipnites marching into Becopton. At a minimum, they violated the city’s prohibition on public display of idols, and far greater problems seemed afoot.

The procession moved slowly, so Renent could outrun it if uninhibited. However, the crowds did not cooperate. Becoptonites now jammed the streets, and pandemonium grew. The Southerners moved toward Coppersmiths’ Square, one of Becopton’s marketplaces. Renent hoped to reach it ahead of them.

 On a typical morning, street vendors would fill Coppersmiths’ Square. By the time Renent arrived, though, commerce was frozen. Vendors either stood before their carts to protect them or were packing up to get out. Despite Renent’s hopes, the procession was already entering. It pushed through as onlookers swarmed into the square. Renent never got beyond the outer edge.

He was relieved to see city guards arriving. Unlike the gate guards, they were the city’s proper security force. About ten of them—several with swords drawn—shouted and struggled to get through the mass of bodies.

Renent was realizing how dangerous the situation was. Becoptonites and Jaipnites began pushing each other. The young lord and lady were not yet in view. Unlike the onlookers at the gate who were simply stunned, this crowd had had more time to digest the rumors spreading through the city. They began to chant.

“Idolaters, idolaters, idolaters!”

For a moment, Renent watched, unsure of what he should—or even could—do. He liked to consider himself capable, but the boy felt small in the chaos. The only course left, he decided, was to reach the Lord’s house. He suspected that the procession moved in that direction as well. He hoped his father was there. By now, Tormeten surely knew of the procession, but Renent wanted to guarantee him a good firsthand account.

Renent sped off. He backtracked and ran through more alleyways. After the square, the Jaipnites made an unwise turn down a narrow street.

That would slow them, Renent thought.

His detours soon put him ahead. He found Crailis’s home in quite a bustle. The news preceded him. About a score of guards stood outside on alert. The servants let Renent into Council Hall without comment. They knew him well. The Council seats at the room’s head stood empty. No formal proceedings were underway. People milled about or conferred in small groups. Everyone seemed aware of but resigned to Renliar’s impending grand entrance. Crailis stood in a corner with arms folded, nodding his head while a servant whispered to him. A couple other councilmen stood close by. Tormeten was walking out with a guard captain as Renent came in. His father was energetically delivering instructions.

Renent hurried to him. Tormeten blinked.

“Oh, why are you here?”

“The procession went through Coppersmiths’ Square!” Renent panted. “Renliar is there, I think. There was some fighting….”

Tormeten put his hand on Renent’s shoulder. “I know. It’s all right. Go home to your mother. Tell her everything’s fine, but lock the gate. Things will be fine.”

That was all. Tormeten and the officer hurried past Renent, who only managed to squeak a “yes”—hardly the dramatic statement he intended.

Still, he trusted that his father was already informed. He felt relieved. The Council was getting the situation under control. Renent went straight home. He now had two duties: lock the gate and convey his father’s reassurances to Farant. He did both.

 

◙ ◙ ◙

 

That night, Renent lay awake. Compared to the morning, the afternoon had been eerily quiet. One of the Lord’s servants summoned Farant to Council Hall, and Renent had stayed behind. Lahall made him dinner, and he went to bed.

He sat up. A group of people entered the house. For a moment, he feared invasion but soon heard casual conversation and identified the voices of his parents and Xzax. He arose and walked to the dining hall’s doorway. Inside were several lead merchants and a judge on the Council. They were gathering at the hearth, their faces flickering in the firelight. He heard Farant in the kitchen listing to Lahall what food to prepare. Unseen, Renent crouched in an adjoining room. Guests often spoke openly, and Renent knew he was no eavesdropper. He could hear such meetings from his bed. Still, he did not feel like getting any attention.

Renent ascertained the following about the day’s events. Lord Renliar’s procession had arrived at Council Hall. Eventually, Renliar’s wife—named Ebell—went into Crailis’s living quarters. Crailis’s wife and other leading women entertained her there, as originally planned. That was why Farant had gone. The councilmen had escorted Renliar and his advisors into Council Hall. After some tense moments, the guards expelled the other Southerners, who pitched camp by the stream.

In what little business Renliar transacted, he largely ignored the trade issues that the merchants hoped to discuss. Instead, he demanded rights to construct a temple to Jaipni by the pilgrimage road and a tax on pilgrims as they crossed the Great Ford. After this unpleasantness ended, Renliar and his wife went out to their camp, where they apparently still were.

Becopton’s councilmen and merchants remained at Council Hall to discuss the day’s developments. Debate went into the night. Ultimately, in exasperation, Lord Crailis adjourned the meeting until the morning. Discontent with this, some wanted to continue speaking with Tormeten, so he brought them here.

That conversation commenced.

“I’m still not sure why we didn’t just end it all immediately,” one merchant was saying. “I mean, by Qualiae, they said they were coming to discuss trade, sir, right?”

Tormeten answered affirmatively.

“Then Crailis should’ve just said, ‘Look, here’s what you came to do. Instead you had your parade. Now you’re done with that, so get out.’”

“What was this about, anyway?” said another. “A show of strength? Of intimidation? What? By Qualiae! I’ll tell you what Renliar should have wanted: storage. His people want to transport goods over here in large quantities and sell them without the need to take them back. Their little wagons are nothing. They need to keep bigger volume out here. That’s what he should’ve wanted, so he should’ve just come in without all that nonsense and asked. He’d have gotten it. Right?”

“Well, I think that shows what’s actually going on,” cut in another voice. “If you want to trade across the Liantin, you’d store on the other side—just like we do at Kelceb. That makes sense. But, by Qualiae, this isn’t about sense. It’s about a bunch of Jaipnites making nonsense. This is what they do, and it’s why things never work out. There’s logic, and there’s them. They just want to fight. That’s what today was about: fighting.”

A discussion emerged about some Becoptonites’ trade aspirations in the South and today’s negative implications for them.

“You think I’m going to pay an armed escort for my wagons and go over there now? Of course not,” said one.

Others concurred.

The subject turned to pilgrimage.

“Sir, should the King send more men down there to guard the road?” one participant asked Renent’s father.

Tormeten, who had said little thus far, answered slowly.

“That would seem a possibility. The King will surely reassess our willingness to presume Kaulo’s good intentions.”

“Is anyone going on pilgrimage soon?” someone inquired.

“I was, next major moon,” came a response.

“And should you? I wouldn’t—not that I have in awhile,” said one who, Renent assumed, was a bit too transparent about his impiety for Tormeten’s taste. “This seems like a terrible time.”

“It is,” affirmed another.

“True. I’ll reassess my plans after this.”

“Well, it’s not like there’s been a lot of pilgrimage over there anyway. How many are going these days?”

As a safety measure, Becoptonites could register with Tormeten when they left and returned. Since Xzax handled this process, he now offered some numbers. Pilgrimage was significantly lower this year.

“And Renliar said he wants to tax pilgrimage? What’s that about?” interjected a voice. “The King wouldn’t allow a pilgrim’s tax, would he?”

“I doubt he would,” the other councilman offered.

“Then we’re stuck. The Southerners won’t back down now—not after today’s display.”

Lahall entered and offered refreshments. A few noted that, in the commotion, they had not eaten all day.

After more discussion, Tormeten spoke with a cautious tone.

“We will, of course, see what our Lord announces in the coming days. Nevertheless, I think it safe to say that Lord Renliar and his new allies must understand that they have no choice but to offer us unrestricted passage, which means untaxed passage. I could not envision the Valley lords, at least, permitting otherwise.”

“Then we send troops?”

“I don’t know about that,” Tormeten answered. “That’s a matter for the King. However, we certainly would offer troops if his majesty requests.”

Everyone voiced assent to this.

Discussion ensued about troop numbers and movements.

 “Well, what about tomorrow?” a merchant then asked. “What happens on day two? Another parade?”

Renent heard growing sarcasm and annoyance in his father’s voice as the evening wore on.

“I must confess,” Tormeten said, “that I could not speak with our Lord after we adjourned this evening. Certain people needed me elsewhere. But I know he’s tired, as are we all. Our opining should not proceed much longer, or we’ll be weary tomorrow.”

“But we need a plan, by Qualiae. I mean, are they marching through the streets again?”

“I think it safe to say,” said Tormeten, “that this morning’s events will not recur tomorrow.”

“But will Renliar come back again?” someone asked. “He’ll enter the city?”

“I think,” said another, “Lord Crailis should just go out to their camp—with armed men, of course. That would avoid disruption here.”

“Have our Lord go out there?” another jumped in. “Where? To sit in a tent? No, that wouldn’t work. If a lord hosts another, Sir Tormeten, he would never go out to meet him, right?”

“A conference between lords typically occurs in the city,” Tormeten confirmed.

Renent recalled Lord Kergerot’s informality. If only he had visited instead.

“Well, that’s it. If our Lord goes out there tomorrow, he might as well announce his inferiority. No. He should stick with what’s normal. Anything else will make Renliar more arrogant.”

“So he just marches on through again? Do you know how many people are totally confused after this morning? They don’t know whether to come out and watch or arm for battle.”

“This was supposed to be a quiet visit. Right, sir?”

“It certainly was,” Tormeten confirmed.

“Then we can’t permit Renliar to disturb the city again. I’d say that letting him back in is a bigger victory for him than our Lord going out there would be. If he goes out, then we’re saying to Renliar, ‘We control this city, and you’re not welcome.’”

The debate continued about whether tomorrow’s meeting should occur within or beyond the city walls.

Eventually, Tormeten stopped them.

“Our Lord will make his decision on that. He’s fully able to determine where he will and won’t go. Now, if we must address other matters here, let us do so immediately or sleep.”

The last statement merely turned the conversation to a related issue: the long-term impact of this morning’s incident on Becopton.

“A majority of the people were out there this morning,” a merchant said. “By Qualiae, this was a spectacle.”

“This is bad. This is real bad. Lord Crailis should speak to a people’s assembly as soon as possible. I think everyone is tense right now—and confused, of course.”

“People got pretty riled up. I heard they were throwing stones.”

And chanting, Renent wanted to add.

“Quite a scene. Yelling and noise. Those horns blasting away. People running down the streets. I’m amazed we didn’t have a stampede.”

“And what about Gray Stone? I heard there was cheering in Gray Stone.”

“By Qualiae!”

“Really? That is completely, completely unacceptable. Did they come out on the streets?”

“I heard the same from my servant.”

“I think some did come out, bowing and cheering to those idols.”

A colloquy commenced between two merchants.

“I think they did come out for him. It’d make sense. He wants to rally his supporters.”

“You call them his supporters?”

“Of course they are. We’re going to need guards out there. They shouldn’t get any ideas.”

“Out where? Put troops in Gray Stone?”

“Sure.”

“To do what? Stand there?”

“Absolutely. They need to know not to get any ideas.”

“But, I mean, how does that play out? Some guards just stand there?”

“It sends a message, Qualiae willing. You can’t march idols through the streets and not expect the Jaipnites to get aggressive. We’ll have idols on the street every day. We’ll have idols outside Gray Stone.”

“Where?”

“They’d start selling them in the marketplace. Carrying them around. There’s a precedent that got set today, and now they’ll push it. They’ve forgotten what life’s like with a Jaipnic lord. Now that they’ve had a taste, they’ll remember. Besides, people are furious—people outside of Gray Stone, I mean. My men aren’t happy as it is seeing idolaters walk down streets with those talismans.”

“But there hasn’t been a problem in a while. Let’s have things settle down before we start saying what’s changed permanently.”

“No problem? They already go back and forth across the Liantin a lot. Especially the men. Why? They’re not doing trade. What’s over there for them? Some have to be spies. If we had troops in Gray Stone, we’d know that.”

“Our Lord,” Tormeten interjected, “will decide the assignment of troops.”

“But what about the threat? Gray Stone has how many people? Two hundred? More? They’re just free to go about after this?”

“Well,” Tormeten shot back, “if the Jaipnites in our city showed disloyalty today, then that is what happened. If they did not, then they did not. I greatly doubt that our Lord would approve new troop assignments without specific wrongdoing confirmed. After all, today and tomorrow are just two days, but troops in Gray Stone would last how long? A major moon? Two? A year? And what would breed the greater disloyalty: two days of this, or one year of that? And would we have more conscription to cover the new shifts? Would we pull more workmen from their trades? Who’ll have to explain that to them? Would I? Come to the Council and establish that there’s a street full of traitors, and I’m sure our Lord will put soldiers there in a nice row.”

This put a damper on the room and forced the merchants into a detailed conversation about which of them knew what had happened on what streets and in what order. Nothing definitive emerged.

Finally, someone attempted to adjust the subject. “Well, we should at least limit their movement. Let’s not allow them to cross the Liantin. Those who haul goods for a merchant, well, we’ll just have to send someone else—that’s of course if we’re trading with the South at all after today.”

That began a general discussion about embargos and the resulting damage to the merchants’ sales. Tormeten, however, quickly ended the talk and, this time, was fully explicit.

“I believe we’ve exhausted what’s useful for discussion tonight, Qualiae be my witness. I’ve been willing to hear you about tomorrow. However, an embargo has little to do with tomorrow, which, I safely say, is a decision for the King and, even then, probably at a general assembly of lords. That being said, my woman would like to get some sleep tonight, as would I. I expect at sunrise or thereabouts, our Lord will open Council Hall. He shall then take the next step with respect to our charming young friend.”

This final comment ended the meeting with a laugh, which eased some tension. The night was indeed late. Everyone filed out as Renent retreated to his room. As always, the conversations were safe with him.

 

◙ ◙ ◙

 

Two nights later, Renent awoke to someone yelling at the front gate. He looked around and rubbed an eye. The last days’ events came back to him. Renliar’s visit had ended uneventfully. Lord Crailis sent his ambassador to Renliar’s camp. As Renent understood, the meeting was short. Renliar refused to meet with anyone but Crailis himself, so the Southerners packed up and moved on to the capital city, Arnrian. Crailis dispatched messengers ahead of them to King Grelesten and other Valley and Coastal lords, warning them to avoid a similar spectacle. News came back that, at Arnrian, the King sent soldiers out to meet Renliar and escort him. The other processioners stayed outside under watch. Back here, Tormeten spent almost all his time at Council Hall dealing with the aftermath.

Renent realized the city bells were also ringing. That meant an emergency. Momentarily, Renent wondered if Renliar had doubled back to batter down the city gates (which closed at night). However, as he put on a shirt, he made out a word among the yelling.

“Fire!”

Renent knew Tormeten would soon face his greatest enemy. Only twice before in Renent’s memory had the bells rung at night, and both times his father sprang into battle. Both times his yellow adversary was soon dead. In the years between, Tormeten was relentless with preemptive strikes. He dutifully punished those who missed a night watch shift, kept large hay mounds within the city walls, or left an active hearth in an empty home.

Renent hurried to the courtyard. His father and the manservant who lived on site were already gone. Farant, wrapped in a robe, stood in the gateway. Renent moved beside her.

“Smoke’s rising over Gray Stone,” she said simply.

He squinted, looking for smoke in the dark sky. He thought he saw some wisps. More distinct, though, was the sound of shouting.

“Should I follow him?” he asked.

“No. I don’t think so. Those on patrol should be sufficient, I hope.”

They just stood, a light wind on their faces.

Then his mother backtracked.

“Go to Xzax’s house. Just in case. I’m sure he’s left, but make sure.”

Renent ran without even putting on sandals. The distance was short, and he found Xzax’s wife and children out in the street. They too looked at the sky. Xzax had already dashed after his master. Renent returned to his own gateway.

He and Farant waited. Others began milling in the street. All eyes were to the sky. After a time, the bells stopped.

This must be a good sign, Renent thought.

It was. Not long after, Tormeten returned, breathing heavily. Mud was crusted all over him. Renent inferred that the water and dry dirt had combined on him during the struggle.

“We caught it. Just one complex destroyed, and a couple of houses. A few burn victims, but none dead. We had a fire station nearby.”

He made the last comment with pride. Years before, he ordered the water and loose earth barrels rearranged more equidistantly across the city.

Despite the mud, Farant clasped her arms around Tormeten and kissed him on the cheek.

“Did Lahall live there?” she asked.

“No. I saw her, though. Everyone was out in the street. I’m sure she knew the injured, though.”

“I’m sure.”

The next question was nagging at Renent, and he was relieved when his mother asked first.

“Was it arson?”

“What else? Some claimed men broken into one house right before, threw the family onto the street, and torched the front wall. Everyone’s hysterical, though. We’ll find out more in the morning. They say they didn’t have candles lit, and their hearths were dead. The buildings were right there at Gray Stone’s edge by the empty bakery house. It’s a good target.”

Rage grew in Tormeten’s voice.

“They want to burn down the city for Qualiae? By his name, we’ll hang them. Then he can thank them personally.”

Renent knew that his father was involved whenever the rope went over a person’s head, and the thought sobered the boy. Still, Renent knew well that, except perhaps for a traitor, no one deserved death more than an arsonist. He returned to bed but could not sleep for a long while.

 

◙ ◙ ◙

 

 The next morning, Renent awoke tired. Tormeten succumbed to his nighttime meetings and emergencies. He slept well past dawn. A guard captain arrived to commence the fire investigation, but Farant refused to wake her husband.

Renent went for another walk. With luck, he thought, he could get through this one without a Jaipnite parade. He was out of sorts and dazed. An overcast sky made the day gloomy. The whole city seemed off kilter.

He saw two boys about his age. They were from leading merchant families—one’s father had met at Renent’s home three nights ago. Renent hailed them. They replied that they were bound for Gray Stone.

“Why?”

“To see what happened. Check out the damage. Should be worth a look.”

Notwithstanding his father’s relationship with fire, Renent had an admiration for its handiwork. Without further thought, he asked to accompany them. They assented automatically.

Not until they were on Gray Stone’s outskirts did Renent consider his actions. He was going into Gray Stone. Something about this seemed wrong.

Renent looked about. Although Gray Stone was just blocks away, he had not been here in years and could not remember why he came even then. What he saw met his expectations. This was the poorest part of the city. The buildings were dingier and taller with stories stacked on each other as if lazily dropped from the sky.

 They found the fire’s location. On side of the street lay a black row of ash and charred objects. Enough boards remained upright for Renent to see where the three buildings had stood. Others nearby were charred but intact. The street itself was strewn with debris. A lot of people were present. Some seemed to wander aimlessly while others combed the mess for surviving possessions. Onlookers stared, and Renent could tell that many were not from Gray Stone.

An altercation was underway. The boys gravitated nearer. A woman and several small children huddled together in the remains of one house. A man stood before them on the street, facing three other men.

“That’s what you’ve done to our city,” one was saying. “I’m just saying. I don’t feel sorry. If you march your idols on the streets, this is what happens. We don’t have to put up with this.”

The others made similar statements.

When the man did speak, he muttered with an accent.

“We just want to be alone. We don’t want trouble. We just want to clean….”

The men cut him off.

“Don’t want trouble? You all caused trouble these last days.”

The one-sided conversation continued, and Renent’s eyes moved to the family behind. The woman was whispering to the children, and he saw that some clung to simplistically-carved falkars around their necks. A baby sat in her lap, and the woman wrapped the infant’s hand around her own falkar as she rocked back and forth.

Renent’s scattered feelings converged at this moment. He reminded himself why the existence of the many gods was implausible: their interrelationship. If storms were clashes between air and sea gods, why did they start and stop their disagreements? Who settled their conflicts? Greater gods? Even worse, how do people know which side to take? If rain is the byproduct of such conflict, should people pray for no rain? Which gods caused humans to walk the earth, and why haven’t the others destroyed all people in retaliation?

As these questions recycled through his mind, a new reason joined the others. Would a god really embarrass himself like this in a city so disloyal to him? Would Jaipni or Sendora or any deity abandon the one corner of a city that knew the truth? Here Renent stood, willing to watch any god defend Gray Stone. Yet nothing happened.

The irony of clasping a falkar here—a sign, as Renent knew, of silent prayer—was that the prayer had already failed. None of the many gods prevented the fire or aided their servants now. What remained to justify their misguided devotion? Nothing. Nothing, except stubbornness.

He became angry. Had the Jaipnites renounced their beliefs, the last several days’ drama would not have occurred. The men standing near Renent were right. The Jaipnites did give the city trouble—significant trouble. Lord Renliar’s behavior traumatized the city, and no one in Gray Stone had stopped him.

Renent’s teeth clenched and heart rate accelerated as he watched the baby’s hand. He kicked the ground a bit and looked down at the debris. He then noticed something he had seen before in the city: a small stone engraving of an outstretched arm and shoulder. A distinct band spiraled above the elbow. This was the arm of a Sendora idol. It easily fit in his hand as he picked it up. Fire had blackened it. The irony was now complete. The gods were so false that they were powerless to protect not only Gray Stone but also themselves.

Renent startled himself as he abruptly flung Sendora’s arm and yelled, “idolater!”

He aimed to the family’s side. The stone bounced off the rubble and settled in some ashes. Renent’s compatriots quickly picked up stones and did likewise. The three men stopped mid-sentence and looked over. The father moved toward the boys and stared at Renent with a hopeless expression. He repositioned himself between the men, the boys, and his family.

In those moments, three events combined to send a chill of realization through Renent. First, one of the boy’s stones come close to a child’s head, causing the mother to scream. Second, several more Jaipnites—all wearing falkars—began arriving from up the street. Third (and triggered by the first two), Renent remembered--and felt stunned to have forgotten—that he was not an anonymous figure here. Surely some people recognized him as Tormeten’s son. He father’s occasional admonition passed through his mind.

“Whatever you’ve done in this city, I’ve done.”

He felt embarrassed. If a problem existed here, the Council could handle it. Besides, if a riot commenced, he could guess the consequences if he were in its midst.

“This is pointless, come on,” he said to the boys and walked away.
He did not look back or immediately know if his companions followed. All he wanted now was to go home.
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