Beneath the clockwork streets of Trinity lay the city’s bones. The countless building projects, infrastructure updates, and new efficiency standards that modernized the empire’s illustrious capitol turned its underworld into a twisting warren of rigorously maintained sewer systems, ancient alleyways, and built-upon history.
Here, below the streets and between crumbling stone and plaster, sharp-eyed men and women met to discuss the future of Trinity. They jabbed fingers at maps and argued over buzzing surveyors lamps. Their rumbling discontent never boiled past low tones. No one really knew how the empire’s god-kings seemed to hear and see so much.
Most of the rebels were barrel-built with thick limbs. They bore the rough hands and occasional scars of the empire least valued peoples, the laborers, farmers, and unskilled craftsman. Of the rebels though, a few were nimble-minded students with soft palms and monologues of hegemony, subversion, and moral imperative. The rebels suffered these lofty words for the heavy purses and family fortunes that came attached. A rebellion only lasted as long as rebels could eat.
Of the students, Ari was the most recent addition to the movement. He spoke less and listened far more than the others, prone to jest and the occasional game of dice. This endeared the willowy youth to most, but not all.
It was over one of these games, as Ari teased out a bitter life story from an ex-farmer, that Rolf, one of the laborers who’d never liked Ari’s wide-eyed inquisitiveness, interrupted with a growl. The farmer stopped before she could explain the manner and location to which she’d been conscripted, and Ari blinked at Rolf.
“Shut up,” Rolf’s glare grew when it shifted from her to Ari. It stayed fixed on the student, twisted in the ugly yellow lamps they used to light the tunnels. “No need to blather when you don’t need to. Never know who could be listening.”
“Just me really,” Ari said and collected his dice for the next throw. The farmer spooked, gathered her winnings and left with an excuse about checking dinner. Ari shrugged and offered the dice to Rolf.
Rolf twisted the side of his nose and drew out a thick-bladed knife from his belt. The larger man began to oil the blade, a rag wrapped around his knobbed fingers. Ari put away his dice. “Who do you think is listening?” Ari asked.
“You’ve heard of the Chosen.” Rolf stated and flicked his eyes up to catch Ari’s expression and found it casually curious. “They are the god-kings’ generals, their apprentices, their spies.” Rolf rolled the last word of his tongue into the stale air. “They’re immortal, can’t be killed, immune to pain. Demons.”
“And you think–”
“Don’t lead my words.” Rolf snapped again, looking for support from the others. Many of the camp were looking at them now. Rolf raised his voice, bolstered by the serious expressions. “We have a spy. We all know it. The guards have swept these tunnels three times this week. We need to cut this spy out, even if it’s one of them.” Rolf gestured with the blade.
“But, like, with actual knives.” Ari snorted at the brandished weapon. Around them the tension broke with a few smiles. “I thought they were immortal.”
“They are. The Warlord’s jewel, the Duke’s iron dog, the Mage’s bird. There’s others. You see them around if you work in this infernal city long enough. They don’t die, don’t age. Makes it easier to pick them out if you’ve seen them before.” Rolf hadn’t let his eyes off Ari as he spoke, tracing the lines of Ari’s delicate jaw and crooked nose. Rolf’s mouth grew so tight it trembled. “And I’ve been in this gilt city a long time.”
Rolf shattered a lamp when he lunged at Ari. The student yelped and fell backwards in his chair, only to have his shirtfront caught by Rolf’s rough hands. Rolf jerked the thick-bladed knife deep into Ari’s belly. The youth gasped without breath, eyes white around their edges as he hung, bug-eyed, in Rolf’s grasp.
Rolf threw the Ari down and watched Ari clutch at his stomach with growing confusion. Ari twitched a final spasm, spat blood, and then went glassy-eyed on the crumbling floor.
Agast students and Rolf’s stony faced companions stared at the grisly scene. Rolf gestured at Ari’s corpse with the knife, “I saw him, this one, when I was little, he was as smarmy and smirking then as he–” Rolf stammered, gaze darting between the rebels and his victim. A pool of blood spread from Ari’s body, cast yellow like dark oil in the surveyors lamps.
The farmer who’d told Ari her story earlier shook her head. “Chosen are immortal, you just killed some kid who was trying to help us.” She and the other rebels shared a glance. The remaining students who were beginning to flinch towards the exits.
The rebels left Ari’s body to the pests and scavengers that lived in the undercity. It was a sad thing, but Rolf was half-frantic and they had work to do. All were nervous about the frayed whispering among the students and the hateful looks sent towards Rolf’s back.
Once the clanking of packs and the light of the surveyor’s lamps had vanished down the old tunnels, darkness fell over the abandoned camp. Ari’s body spasmed and breathed again with a bloody gasp that sounded like, “ta-da.”
“You did not mean to do that.” The voice of the Duke thrummed in his head with the pulse of his own, now renewed, heartbeat.
“I did. Planned the whole thing.” He murmured to the plaster digging into his cheek and the god-king inside his head. The man who’d recently been called Ari folded himself into a fetal position and waited for the agony in his gut to subside.
The Duke’s presence hovered dryly concerned until his Chosen could push himself onto his knees. The god-king’s magic kept his body working, but Ari pressed a hand to his stomach as he stood and looked blankly into the dark. “Dissent sowed, rebels dissolving. Now how do I get out of here?”
“Planned the whole thing?”
Ari ignored the voice, flicking his head to clear the hair that had fallen over his eyes. He started down the tunnel, going slowly on uneven footsteps.
Ari’s mouth flickered with a smile and did as the Duke instructed.
A thief this week, as I am most weeks. Thanks to the Legal Theft Project and CC’s dialogue line “But, like, with actual knives.”, I managed to write a bit this round. See CC’s original here.