A fantasy novel-in-progress, inspired by the Greek and Persian wars of ancient history. In this chapter, a spy is discovered in the Kreeg city of Meteron.
Hap the Crystalwright
A Fantasy-Adventure Novel by Alan Carl Nicoll
Copyright 2022 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved
Chapter One: At Another Time, In Another Place
Hap Hoc Pex, a respected Crystalwright in the Kreeg city of Meteron, was sitting at his crowded workbench. Before him was a brass wall lamp that had been brought to him for repair. The brass case had been endlessly repolished, but the trademark of his grandfather had not been entirely effaced. Seeing this symbol from the distant past gave Hap a warm feeling; the lamp was still in service after perhaps fifty years, a testament to the craftsmanship and quality of the product. Reaching inside the lamp, he removed the cool, gray disk of the lightcrystal and put it on the bench. Though all the power devices he worked with were called “crystals,” they had no apparent similarity to the naturally-occurring mineral crystals that were prized as objects of beauty. Power crystals looked like rocks worn smooth by the action of ocean waves, but they were manufactured by crystalsmiths using processes known only to the guild, processes kept secret for a hundred years by the human-like species known as the Benoy.
Hap removed the lamp’s trigger mechanism, sliding it out of the channel that held it in place inside the lamp. He pressed the trigger crystal against the light crystal he had just removed; it remained dark. Then he tested the trigger crystal on a lightcrystal that he knew was fully charged, and it also remained dark. He stood up and, taking both crystals, he walked across the workshop to Zeebo’s bench. Zeebo was a crystalsmith and had been working in Hap’s shop for over twenty years. His head bore on top the heavy bony ridge running from front to back, the distinguishing feature of the Benoy species. “Defective trigger crystal,” he said to Zeebo as he placed both crystals on the bench.
Zeebo took the tiny trigger crystal and examined it with a magnifying glass. “Cracked,” he said. He glanced at the other crystal. “Did you test the lightcrystal?”
Zeebo picked up another tiny crystal and pressed it against the lightcrystal, which immediately gave off a bright glow of captured sunlight. He nodded, and handed a new lightcrystal and a new trigger crystal to Hap.
“Old lamp,” Hap said. “My grandfather’s work.”
Zeebo turned to look at him for the first time. “Pex’s work? The old man built them well.”
Hap smiled and returned to his workbench. Zeebo had come to work in this shop when Hap’s grandfather had owned it; the broken trigger crystal could have been made by Zeebo himself. Benoy males were long-lived, their normal lifespan being well over a hundred years.
Hap inserted the trigger crystal into the brass trigger mechanism, then inserted it and the lightcrystal back into the lamp. He looked inside the lamp as he worked the sliding button of the trigger mechanism. It worked well. He took a bit of drawbear grease on his fingertip from the pot on the bench and wiped it on the trigger mechanism. He cleaned his finger with a rag as he gazed out the screened window at the front; traffic on the street was light—a few pedestrians and a horse-drawn cart full of dung.
The timer lamp on Hap’s bench flickered twice. “Time to go to Assembly,” he said.
“Or, as I call it, the garden of cabbageheads.”
Hap stood up and patted Zeebo on the shoulder. “We’ll see you a citizen yet. Vel will be home from school soon.” Zeebo did not look at him. “Don’t get discouraged.”
“When the Wise Three disagree, the Assembly will not act.
“Yes. There’s still a chance.”
Zeebo said, facing away, “Shake the old men up, Hap.”
“I’ll see you at lunch.”
“Bye,” Zeebo said, then added a muttered, “Cabbagehead.” Hap smiled as he left the shop.
Groh Street, paved with cobbles, was narrow and crowded with shops of artisans, merchants, and importers. Hap wrinkled his nose at the smell of sewage, and reflected for the hundredth time that it would hurt business if it continued. Hap’s complaints, among those of many others, both to city officials and at the Assembly, had gotten promises but no improvement. But as Hap walked up the street toward the Great Square of Meteron, he mentally checked off the arguments he wanted to make at the Assembly in favor of Benoy citizenship.
He crossed the Great Square, the showplace of Meteron where the buildings were gleaming white and pink stone and the citizens were well-dressed and respectfully silent. For although the Kreegs universally praised reason, the customs of Meteron were ancient, and not necessarily more sensible than those of other city-states. Elsewhere, such a natural meeting environment would be alive with discussion and argument; in Meteron, talking in the Great Square was considered disrespectful. In earlier times it would have been punished as a violated taboo, but since the worship of The Forgotten God had been abolished, there were no taboos, only the laws of men and the weight of custom. For in democratic Meteron, women, like Benoy, had no voice in the government.
Hap climbed the few steps to the Assembly Hall and pushed through the crowd at the door; the ban on talking ended at the first step up from the Square, so this crowd was knotted here and there with groups in animated discussion. Inside the Hall the noise level was high. The room was very large, the largest in the city, with a double circle of seats facing a raised platform at the far wall, the area reserved for the three Wise Three that had the supreme power of the legislative body. Acts of the Assembly required the unanimous consent of the Wise Three to become law. Only once had one of the elect been known to be corrupted by bribes; the punishment he had received was legendary. As the meeting would not begin for some minutes, their lofty seats were vacant.
Hap nodded to friends and opponents alike; now he saw Tip and Ket, two well-dressed Assembly members and Hap’s partners in the push for Benoy citizenship, approaching through the knots of humanity. Hap stood behind his customary seat in the second row. Their faces were grave. Nods exchanged, Hap said, “I can see that you don’t have good news.”
Tip, oldest of the three, said quietly, “We can count on only about sixty votes.”
“I still want to call for a vote,” Hap said.
“We’ll lose. That will kill the issue for the year.”
“The year will be over soon enough. I want to make the members declare themselves, for or against justice.”
Ket spoke for the first time. “Our cause is just, but would it not be better to win the fight than to force the vote at the wrong time?”
“We have waited and waited. The Benoy have waited longer. Patience is an enemy.”
Ket smiled. “If you speak so passionately in the Assembly, perhaps some will be swayed.”
Hap ground his teeth, remembering past speeches that had roused the Assembly, only to see that passion drain away as the next speaker droned, and the next, and so on, until three quarters of the members were disgusted with the whole issue and clamored for an end regardless of the wisdom of the proposal. The policy of free and unlimited discussion was both the blessing and the curse of the Assembly. The greatest asset of a politician was a larynx of brass and lungs of leather. Good sense was blown away in hot air.
Tip said, “We want to call for a speaker from Zymor.”
“Zymor! What an idea. Why?”
“The Zymorite will talk about how the ‘boneheads’ deserve to be slaves, not citizens, because they’re less than human, too inferior to be educated, that they steal children for blood sacrifices, all sorts of hateful lies.”
“So you hope to discredit the opposition?” Hap shrugged. “Won’t we be tarred with that brush if we call for the speaker?”
“We thought of that. We’ll have a neutral propose him. We can shout him down.”
Hap nodded. “Okay, why not. At least his talk won’t be boring. But I see another danger. He will also say that the alliance will be strained if we make the Benoy citizens. We may lose as many votes as we gain, if any. But let’s try it. Nothing else has worked yet.”
The hall was full, most members had taken their seats, the Wise Three had entered. As it happened, the Three were opposed to the emissary from Zymor; their opposition was not explained, as they, by law, never spoke in Assembly. Hap was surprised when the opposition party called for a vote, surprised and discouraged; surely they were certain the measure would not pass. And as the vote was counted, their certainty was sustained: the vote was fifty-nine in favor, twenty-seven opposed, fourteen abstaining. The required two-thirds to extend citizenship was not achieved.
Hap walked home in deep sadness.
Vel, Hap’s daughter, twelve years old, tall, blonde, pretty, smart, and all that, met him at the door. “Zen came by, Daddy, and told us about the vote. It’s so unfair.”
Hap nodded, looking at Zeebo’s back, quietly at work. He turned to Hap and said, “I’ve got an idea for an improvement in lightcrystals. We can talk about it over lunch. We’re having cabbage.”
After lunch, Vel returned to school and Hap and Zeebo returned to work. Zeebo’s idea was simple but important. It was known that lightcrystals could be stacked to increase light output. By having a lens in front of the light it could be focused to a small point which could be very hot; Hap used a tool like this to burn through wood and other nonmetallic materials. Zeebo’s idea was to build a torch on a much larger scale and make a burning ray that could be used in war, something that had been tried in the past but failed. He was uncertain whether the necessary glass lenses would be available in Meteron, or anywhere.
As Hap reassembled his grandfather’s lamp, a young man entered the shop. Hap thought he looked familiar but he couldn’t place him. The young man looked hesitantly around the shop, then stepped to Hap, uncurling a sheet of parchment as he said, “Are you Hap the Crystalwright? Hap Hoc Pex?”
“Yes I am.”
“I’m Pit Fik Hoc, your newphew.
“Pit? Of course!”
“This will explain why I’ve come.” He handed the parchment to Hap.
Hap read it aloud, as Zeebo was considered a member of the family. “Dear Hap, the bearer of this letter is my son, Pit. I’m sending him to you in the hope that you will accept him as an apprentice in our father’s shop. My wife and daughters are well and happy. Please do me this favor as conditions here are difficult.” It was signed and signeted Fic Hoc Pex.
Before Hap could respond, Pit spoke again. “What he couldn’t put in the letter was that the Great King, so called, is taking young men by force for his army from among the citizens of Noi.”
“What? That can’t be, the treaty—”
Pit shrugged and shook his head. “We try not to argue with the Great King.”
“This must be brought to the attention of the Assembly tomorrow. Certainly you can stay with us. How old are you?
“Rather old to be starting a trade, but I guess you’ll have to do something to help out, and it might as well be that. Are you a quick learner? Have you worked with tools at all?”
Pit nodded eagerly. “Leather working. Look, I made this belt I’m wearing.”
“I don’t have the tools and such. My father thought it would be better to teach me your trade. And I think he doesn’t value leather work much, not compared to crystal work. Of course, I know something of the Crystalwright trade, since my father taught me what he knew. But we don’t have a Benoy working for us, so his Crystalwright work is limited to occasional repairs.”
“That makes some sense,” Hap said. “I didn’t like Fic’s idea of emigrating to Noi, it’s much safer here. But I’ve always preferred to let people make their own decisions without interference from me. Crystals it is. You can start by sweeping the floor.”
“Yay,” said Zeebo. Sweeping was normally his job.
When Vel came in after school, Hap introduced the cousins to each other. Vel was pleasant enough to Pit, but Hap saw with dismay that her left hand tugged at a strand of her hair. It was her signal to him that this person was not to be trusted.
Seeing no reason to delay the inevitable confrontation, Hap said to Pit, “You can tell us the truth, Pit. You’re among friends. Let us do what we can to help.”
“I’m not lying. Why would you say that?”
Vel said, “He has an honorable character, yet he’s lying. I can’t explain it.”
“So, Pit,” Hap said, “How about telling us why you’re really here. My daughter is never fooled by people.”
Pit crumpled in defeat, sitting down and hanging his head. When he looked at Hap again, tears glistened in his eyes. “They made me do it. Mom and Dad are being held in prison. If I don’t come back with the secret of crystal technology, they’ll be killed.” He looked at Vel. “I’m telling the truth.”
Hap felt a sudden chill. His younger brother in prison, and Fic’s wife and daughters. The precious crystals, made only in Kreeg and mostly in Meteron, the main source of their great wealth and thus, their safety. Now the Great King of the east had turned greedy eyes on the west.
“This is urgent news. I must go to other Assembly members and spread the word. War may come of this. Pit, I want you to come with me, others may have questions. Is there anything else I need to know?”
Vel verified his negative response.
“Zeebo, I want you to go to the other crystalsmiths in the city. Warn them to be careful of spies. Vel, you stay here and keep an eye on the shop. Are we all in agreement?”
Zeebo said, “I don’t know, Hap. I’d rather make my own decisions uninfluenced—” He ducked as Hap swung at him. “You’re influencing me! You don’t want to hit me in the head, you’ll break a knuckle.”
“Let’s get started.”
The next day, Hap and Pit went to the Assembly. Hap put off the many who had questions; those he had spoken to the day before had naturally spread the news of spies in Meteron. The room was crowded with Assembly members and spectators. When the Wise Three entered and took their seats, the room was quiet and the mood somber. Hap remained standing, the only member not seated. The spectators stood in the back of the room, Pit among them.
Hap spoke in a commanding voice. “Wise Ones, I have urgent news. May I open the proceedings?”
The Wise Three nodded.
“Wise Three, Members of the Assembly, Citizens of Meteron, heed my words.” He walked to the center of the arc of seats, to the base of the dais, and turned to face the Assembly. “Yesterday, my nephew Pit arrived in Meteron, having made the long journey from Noi. Pit, step forward, please.”
Pit stepped out of the crowd of spectators and entered the circle.
“He confessed to me that he had been sent here as an unwilling spy, to steal the secret of our crystals for the Great King of Serpias.” An angry murmur swept through the crowd. “He was forced to do this to save the lives of his parents. As we all know, Noi was besieged fifteen years ago by the Great King—so he calls himself—of Serpias. Many of us fought in that war. Many of us counseled against the peace that we thought was dishonorable. Wise at the time or not, that peace is now in jeopardy. The tyrant is no longer satisfied with the tribute he receives from the colonies, a burdensome tribute that the Kreeg homeland helps the colonies pay. The tyrant is no longer appeased; he seeks the secret of our wealth, and I believe he seeks the destruction of Meteron. But others may know better of that; I admit that this is speculation. But I believe a new war is upon us.”
“War!” The word echoed and resounded from many mouths until a Wise One lifted a hand for silence.
“Six Kreeg colonies were taken by the King in that war, while Meteron was safe across the Inland Sea. Twenty more colonies lie in the path of the King if it is his plan to bring his armies here. We must make allies of all Kreeg. We must put aside our age-old differences, send embassies to the independent tribes and city-states to inform them of this development and warn them of the danger to us all. We must also strengthen our armies and navy.”
“Now, I must tell you that as soon as possible I will journey to Noi and attempt to free my brother and his family by any means necessary.” He was quiet for a moment. “I am done.” He sat down.
Several members rose to be recognized; the most senior member of the opposition party was recognized, as custom demanded. Tep Hec Pot stood up as the Wise Three motioned for the crowd to quiet again. “Wise Ones, may I speak?”
The Wise Three nodded. He strode to the center of the circle. “Fellow Meterons, we have heard the words of Hap Hoc Pex. We know him as a good friend and a valiant soldier. I remind you of his courage in many battles against the very foe of which he now warns us. We respect his judgment and I see in him a future Wise One.” The crowd murmured its approval of this high praise. “And I wish him well in his quest to free his brother.”
“However, he forges a lengthy chain of logic, starting with one weak link. Some persons, we know not who, sent his nephew to us under dire threats, to steal the secret of our wealth. From this one fact which I do not dispute, he reasons that the tyrant of the east is making war on us. It could be so, and if it is so, he is right, we must prepare with all speed. War is a terrible thing, but defeat is worse. But the tyrant is far away. He may have no such plan—we do not know. Are we, then, to take up arms and train our young men for war before we even know whether this is necessary? Will not such preparation weaken our economy as we divert our attention away from productive labor to make weapons that may do nothing more than rust in our armories? And if we do prepare for war, might this not challenge the tyrant to the very war we dread?” The Wise Ones nodded and the crowd murmured.
Tep continued, “Is it not more likely that some rich eastern merchant has set this plot afoot to steal our secrets merely to enrich himself? Here is what I propose. Let us support Hap in his quest, and charge him as well to spy on the doings of the tyrant. Let us have more facts to draw fateful conclusions, and not squander our wealth on a war that may never come. I have said.”
The next speaker said, “If you prepare for war, war comes. If not with the eastern tyrant, then perhaps with the southern kings. Weapons cry out to be used. I have said.” The Wise Ones nodded.
Another speaker tediously recounted the financial losses of previous wars, and spectators wandered in and out while some Assembly members struggled to stay awake and others dreamed of lunch. A few members were seen actually dozing, but a few others frantically took notes. When this speaker was done the Wise Three called a halt. The session was adjourned, to resume on the following day.
Hap was encouraged that the Assembly was paying serious attention to his news, but he also felt certain that the extreme measures he advocated would not be approved.
At the shop he learned that Zeebo and Vel had visited all the crystal shops in Meteron. The warnings were appreciated but Vel did not find any spies. Zeebo had also visited the two lenssmiths and learned that the largest lenses they could grind accurately were only four inches in diameter. Hap saw that it would have to do. Over lunch, he told what had happened in the Assembly. Immediately after lunch he set about constructing a mount to hold twelve crystals and a four inch lens.
Zeebo had made light crystals as large as two feet across; he had on hand crystals of the size needed.
Hap add nearly finished installing the twelve trigger crystals when the door of the shop opened and a blind old woman entered, dressed in costly silk, followed by two attendants. Her ears were covered. He sprang to his feet and said, “Revered Listener Dez Pix Chep, I am honored by this visit.”
“The honor is mine, Hap Hoc Pex, Revered Crystalwright. With these formalities finished, I come to offer my services on your quest. My sharp ears, which have been my lifelong treasure, curse, and compensation for being blind from my birth, may be of much of value in the cities of the east. Do not be concerned that my blindness or my age will become burdensome. I am very capable and healthy, and my value on such ventures has often been proved in the past.”
“It has indeed, Dez. Let me introduce you to my nephew, Pit, and my crystalsmith and friend —”
“Zeebo,” Dez said. “We are known. Greetings, Pit. My ears tell me you have already earned respect in Meteron.”
“You honor me, Dez.”
“Now,” the woman said, “tell me of your plans. You are dismissed,” she said over her shoulder to her attendants. “Return home.”
Before the door could close, Vel entered. “Revered Listener,” she said to Dez.
“Vel, is it? I have heard much of you. Is it true that you can read a man’s innermost thoughts and secrets by a mere look in the face? So have I heard.”
An embarrassed silence followed.
Dez continued, “So it is true. An enviable talent, or a pitiable curse? I wonder.”
Hap cleared his throat. “It is something about which we rarely speak, and although you overstate the extent of her ability, you are essentially correct. I am amazed that you know of it.”
“Fear not, Hap, those of us adept at learning secrets also well know how to keep them. Now, to your plans. When will you leave for the east?”
“Next month. Vel’s school ends then.”
“She accompanies us, very good. Spies must know whom they can trust, though I also am adept at discovering liars—when they speak.” Her face wrinkled into a smile as she touched her right ear cover.
“We must prepare a cargo to take with us, since we will travel as crystal merchants seeking to expand our markets. Pit will teach us Serpian. Zeebo will remain here.”
“I can help with Serpian also,” Dez said, “though it has been some years… I think my friend Sich Sich Kot will also be wanted, hm?”
“The Swordmaster!” Hap said. “Would he come?”
“He will if I ask him, though he is no mere Swordmaster.”
“Honored lady,” Zeebo said. “I see also a danger in this. While you use your talent in the shadows, the Swordmaster is well known in the east. He will be recognized, and difficult to explain in your party.”
“Have you seen him often, then, as he walks the streets of Meteron and visits the Crystalwrights to purchase their toys?”
“What, here?” Hap cried. “I never knew, yet I have seen him often in battle. I’m astonished.”
“He has many skills, including the art of disguise. They say he can make himself invisible, an art he learned in the fabled empire of Celestia—they say—but I’m doubtful, not having seen it, you know.” she chuckled.
“He would indeed be valuable,” Zeebo said. “A couple of soldiers as well, I think, to help with any heavy lifting?”
“Indeed,” Hap said. “With friends like these, how can we fail?”
Dez said, “Easily. You surprise me, Hap. The enemy also has spies and skilled people the equal of any we know of in little Meteron. Do not underestimate the great king. If he is indeed behind this plot, a rescue attempt might be anticipated and traps set just for blunderers such as ourselves. Pit, did anyone accompany you to Meteron?”
“Lady, I came alone. I was to report my progress every month, but Zeebo can handle that.”
Zeebo grinned. “I can mislead them well in the art of the crystalsmith. The practice is a practiced one in my profession. We must conspire in the writing of letters.”
Dez said, “I will walk through the neighborhood to hear what I can hear. It could be that our plans are known even beyond what was spoken of at the Assembly. Let us stop all sounds for a moment.” Dez lifted the covers from her ears. Where her eyes should have been were shallow depressions, taut skin over empty sockets. Her face relaxed and her mouth smiled inanely, and a small drop of spittle formed at one corner. Her ears twitched and seemed to expand. Hap heard nothing but ordinary afternoon noises of the city. Then Dez straightened up, replaced her ear covers, and wiped her mouth as she whispered one word. “Upstairs.”
“Upstairs!” Hap bellowed. He, Zeebo, and Pit ran up the stairs, their feet thundering. Shouts and scuffling, then Hap and Zeebo ran back through the shop as Hap shouted, “Out the window, Pit is after him.” Man and Benoy ran into the street. More shouts, a cry of pain, city guard’s horn bleating, distant bleats answering, and a moment later Hap, Zeebo, and Pit returned. Pit’s mouth was bleeding and he dabbed at it with the back of his hand.
“Escaped,” Hap said breathlessly. “Stay here, Pit,” he said, patting him on the shoulder.
“No, I’m coming, too. I owe him one.”
“Good man. I thought you’d say that.” He handed Pit a light—it was getting dark outside. “Let’s go.” The three rushed outside again. Two guards, swords drawn, were moving aimlessly in the street, looking up at the rooftops.
“This is no good,” Hap said to Zeebo. “We need to get up there.” The three rushed inside again and up the stairs. Moments later, footsteps were clumping around on the roof.
Dez said to Vel, “They won’t find him. I know what we should do. Let’s go.”
“Go?” Vel cried in dismay. “What can we do?”
“Use our talents, what else? Come on, haste is essential. If you would help, lead me to the nearest public house.”
[To be continued]
Copyright 2022 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved