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The Tale Of Jon Handshaker, Chapter Four
The Tale Of Jon Handshaker
The Coal Cellar, Five Years Later
Jon Blackface spat, then rubbed his hands together. The coal dust made his hands slick, and a little moisture improved his grip on the shovel handle. Bending over he took another large scoop from the considerable pile before him. From the end of the chute to the bin was a long throw, and he needed a certain smooth rhythm of scoop and pitch to do it well. As he had thought many times before, he wished the chute was long enough to reach the bin by itself. Then the angle would be too shallow, he thought, the coal wouldn’t flow. Somebody wasn’t thinking when they designed these cellars.
In truth Jon didn't mind the work much these days. It was a small enough price to pay for the extra bit of freedom it bought. By simply ignoring the rules, taking the almost daily punishments without complaint, he had free run of the city. Everyone was so used to the situation by now that nobody much noticed anything he did. And that was just the way he liked it.
Shoveling coal had become Jon’s private task. He had been given the job so many times that nobody thought much of it anymore. When the coal wagons arrived Jon Blackface was there to shovel. His hands were hard with callous, and his back was strong. No one bothered him down here. He was free to do as he liked once the coal was done.
Maybe, he thought between scoops, I can get rid of this skinny soon, help him out so he doesn’t fall over dead of the work. And get him out of my hair.
Jon had a very serious problem that needed working out, very soon. He wanted some time alone in the cellar to think and prepare. He still had a lot of things to do, and not much time to do them in. Today he had a special task to complete.
He looked over at the other boy sharing the cellar with him. He was a typical Lamb, big for his age, dark of face and with strong, angular features. He was panting and sweating furiously, about ready to drop. A large pile of flour sacks was still at his feet, ready to be carried over to the rack where they were stored, up off the sometimes damp floor. A larger pile was already racked.
"Hey you, Billy Boney. Need a hand?" Jon wasn't really sure what the boy's name was, Billy Boney, Bobby Bones, or some such. All the newcomers were given suchlike names when they first got to the Home, before they began to fatten. He stopped working and gave Jon a glare. Sweat beaded on his dark face, and dripped amusingly from the tip of his hatchet nose. Jon laughed.
He really wasn't so skinny, a typical newcomer from a well off family. Probably never done anything more strenuous than lifting his fork, Jon though derisively. All the boys in the home were strongly discouraged from any physical activity, overfed, pampered to the point that any labor at all made for a perfect punishment. Didn't work that way for me! Jon thought with a smile. He had his own reasons for accepting the labor, though the other boys thought he was pretty strange. Most everyone else did too. It was a useful reputation to have, at times. It provided a readymade explanation for anything he did.
"Why are you down here? Turn down a second helping of cake?" The boy shot him a harassed look and sat down heavily on a taut sack of flour. Jon grinned in secret amusement. When he stood he would certainly have white floury butt print on the back of his pants. The very stuff of juvenile humor.
"Hey Jon, give me a hand," wheezed out the boy, with a hard laugh at his rather weak jape. Jon laughed along good naturedly, to see that the boy had some spirit, and ambled over to the mountain of sacks. He grabbed a fifty pounder in each hand and pitched them one by one in a low arc over to the front of the rack.
Bobby Bones scrambled out of his way and went over to begin hefting the flour up onto the rack, while Jon casually took two more from the pile mounded up under the trap door.
The boy stopped to rest and let Jon get ahead of him till he had a large pile of sacks waiting in front of him. "Hey Handshaker," he said after he had regained his breath, "Hear the news? The King's son is dead."
"Which son is that?" Jon asked worriedly. "Did Ugly Joe (the oldest Lamb, and so handsome he always had a girl or three on a string) get taken?" Sudden "deaths" among the Lambs were a sad fact of life for the boys. They would disappear from their beds at night, and a few weeks later the news of another "gallant battlefield sacrifice" would be announced in the City. And Jon was old among the Lambs.
"Not one of us, you fat-brain you!"
This comeback was risky for Billy, seeing as Jon outweighed him by probably 300 pounds. Jon was considered by the younger boys as, if not harmless exactly, at least not a bully. A good natured bear. Some of them took advantage of it.
"The SON!" he said again, the capitols clear this time. "The Kings only right heir. It's all over the streets this morning. Everybody in the City's heard about it but you, Coal Boy!"
"Coal Boy" was going just a bit too far even for Jon's good nature, and he started forward a menacing step toward the younger boy. Billy Boney squeaked and ducked out of sight behind a pillar of brick. Jon settled back, point made.
Billy (Bobby?) poked his head back around the pillar and came out when he saw Jon wasn't moving.
"How would anybody know? No one even knows what he looks like, so how could anyone know if he was dead?" Jon asked, with an amused expression.
Stories about the deeds of The Son were common play throughout the Middle Kingdom. He was said to travel about, avenging misdeeds, defending the innocent, and breaking young girls’ hearts wherever he went. He would leave a gold piece on the table of those poor folk who, in spite of their want, treated a wanderer with kindness when he asked for a meal. Jon was skeptical.
He had loved those stories when he first came to the City. The heroic adventures, the villainous bandit kings and beautiful girls so flamboyantly portrayed, had glowed in his imagination. He had wanted them to be true. Needed them. Alone among strangers, with a hopeless future, Jon had lived vicariously through the adventures of his hero.
Five years of living as a Lamb had worn away his enthusiasm. By now everything connected with the King was as grit in his thoughts. In his secret heart he was glad to hear of anything that spelled pain for the King. He was a King's son too, but the lowest slave likely had a better fate and a more hopeful future. The thought that the Son was dead filled him with black glee. He hid it carefully from the other boy, even from himself.
Bobby Bones shifted his weight on the taut flour sack to make a more comfortable seat. He leaned forward in a theatrical pose and thrust his hand out with his fingers extended in hooks, as if clutching something. "They found his royal seal broken in half in his hand. He had the scar too, just like in the stories. It has to be him!" Sweat beaded on his nose, and he wiped it off with his work apron, leaving a smudge of white powder across his face. Jon held in his chuckle. It would be funnier when the other boys saw it later, as he absently started thinking of possible nicknames containing flour. Just punishment for that Coal Boy crack earlier.
"Had the scar," Jon mused aloud. In the stories the Son was always getting chopped up, and of course miraculously recovering just in time to thwart the evil-doers. Almost every story included the famous scar as a plot device. Usually in the stories the Son was wounded, and nursed back to health by a beautiful woman, a Bandit King's young daughter, a peasant girl, or wealthy heiress, who of course had fallen hopelessly in love with him. The scar and the seal would reveal his true identity, leading inevitably to the climax of the story, and the girl's broken heart. An old and very tired plot, Jon now thought.
He had supposedly gotten the scar in his first fight as a teenager, against Free City bandits. The stories varied as to which Bandit King had given it and how. One way or another, in truth that incident had ignited a war that hadn't ended until some twenty-five years ago, almost forty years of on-again off-again bloodletting, murder and betrayal. The King now ruled undisputed from the northern frontier to the very "Free" cities themselves. Certainly not what the Bandit Kings had intended. Their Free Cities were not so free anymore.
"And the broken Seal!" Billy repeated excitedly. Jon wondered himself how the seal might have been broken. The seals were the ancient symbols of the Royal house, going back four thousand years to the first Captain. Brought from fabled Mars, nanoforged and nearly unbreakable, they were as magic in these times. Nothing of this day could touch one, nothing except some other bit of equally old technology. One of the ship weapons perhaps. Billy here wouldn't know much about any of this, being a newcomer and not having had his classes on ancient tech yet. He probably still didn't understand the difference between tech and magic. Few enough did outside the King's household and the Blood.
Jon looked down at Billy Bones, whose eyes were bright with excitement.
"You see?" he said breathlessly. "It must have been a Bandit King assassin, with a magic sword!" Magic swords figured prominently in a currently popular street play. Sometimes it was a gun, or a laser, or some other semi-mythical weapon. This time it was a sword.
The one thing that all had in common was, no one not of the true ancient King's blood could use their powers. Any other foolish enough to try would be blasted himself by the weapon’s powerful protective spells. Jon knew enough by now not to believe in magic spells. The ship weapons gave an electrical shock if their sensors detected a non-authorised user. Most all of them had been set in the early days to the DNA signature of the Kings.
Jon remembered his first day in the city, when he had been presented at the Lamb's House, and sent to the palace for testing. At the gate a slightly built man had accepted him and led him down under the palace, through bright, magically lit halls to a spotlessly pure white room, deep beneath the ground. Here he had had to strip and be examined by several other white-coated men and, embarrassingly, women, who had weighed and measured him, and poked and prodded at him mercilessly.
Finally, a scrawny, pallid man had handed him an oddly shaped thing, saying brusquely, "Here, boy."
Jon had taken the awkwardly shaped thing by what looked like the handle. His hand slipped into it naturally, and he realized it even had grooves that fit his fingers. Suddenly it hadn't felt awkward at all. In fact, it seemed to fit his hand quite naturally, though it was very heavy for it's size. Some kind of metal, Jon supposed.
"Don't let go, no matter what," the small man said. "Hold tight and don't let go even if you feel a pinch. Pull back with this finger here." He jabbed at Jon's forefinger, which had slipped naturally into a loop on the underside of the object. Jon clenched his hand hard, and squeezed with his forefinger. That part moved slightly under the pressure, and Jon felt a sudden, sharp bite in the web of his thumb. He yelled once and almost dropped the thing, but remembered somehow not to.
The pain eased quickly and nothing more happened. The small man watched him expectantly for what seemed a long time. Then, looking satisfied he said, "Well young man, true blood of the King you are. If you were not, you would be on the floor now. Maybe even dead." He smiled as if they were sharing a good joke. Jon did not think it very funny, and hastily handed the thing back to the man.
The man seemed less brusque now, and he even bowed slightly, with a short "Thanks," as he took it back, being careful, Jon now noted, not to grasp it by the handle.
"What is that thing?" Jon asked. "And how does it know who I am?" He sucked a tiny bead of blood from his hand where it had pricked him. The pain was already gone.
"Not who you are, but what. It is a weapon, or, two thousand years ago it was. It hasn't worked as such since then, but it is still keyed to the King's DNA, his blood, as you might say. If anyone other than the King's close blood tried to use it, it would kill or injure him. Now, it is much weaker, and has not killed anyone in many years. But it is still useful to mark the King's blood. We use it as with you, to test prospective Lambs. But I was sure that you would pass. You have the look."
The man stood waiting patiently, even respectfully, though Jon was not able to recognize that at the time. He was not just some overgrown boy off the street now, another Jon Bastard, but a true, proven King's Lamb. A son of the living King. Even though Jon Lamb had no authority and never would, the King’s servants, born to their role as Jon was to his, would now treat him differently.
"It’s a gun!" said Jon, in sudden recognition. Guns figured in many of the popular romances, but of course Jon had never seen one, nor thought to actually hold one in his own hand. He was so surprised that his mind blanked, unable to hold any other thought. Only the King and a few Nobles were said to have functioning guns today. And the Bandit Kings, if stories were to be believed.
"A gun. Yes, of a sort. This particular model cast a short-ranged electrical shock. It was intended for police use, I believe, as it’s effect stunned rather than killed the target. It was also used for punishment." He stopped speaking and seemed to be waiting for Jon.
Jon, encouraged by the man's new attitude asked, "Why doesn’t it work anymore? Is the eledemon inside dead?"
The man sighed slightly, rolling his eyes, his new respect obviously thin. He replied, "We don’t know why it no longer functions. If we knew, even now we might be able to repair it. It has no "demon" to die. It works of itself."
Jon was brought back to himself and the now by an interesting thought. The punishment for unauthorized use of the gun had been automatic death, but the effect of the gun itself on the target was merely stunning. That said interesting things about the society that had built it. Even the lowest power police weapons had been restricted to the King's blood.
He wished now that he had thought to ask about that five years ago at his testing. He did not meet Techs much. They were restricted to the palace for the most part, as he was prohibited the palace except certain areas. The man had been willing to answer his questions then, but they had been a thirteen year old's questions. Not too deep. Jon smiled down at young Billy Bones, feeling quite mature in his eighteen years.
Billy took his smile as encouragement to go on, and began chattering speculation about plots against the King involving Bandits, Free City rebels, and back-stabbing nobles. It all sounded to Jon like the improbable plot from any of a hundred unoriginal street plays he had seen.
Unoriginal except for the part where the Son died and the Seal was broken. The Son never died in the plays. He might be wounded past what any normal man could survive, or left for dead in some contrived situation. But never actually killed. And the Seal was never broken, only lost or stolen, to be recovered just in time to reveal the truth. Jon shivered suddenly. This is no street play.
With the Son dead, the King would have to go get another one, gone from the Middle Kingdom for the years that took. Old folks still talked about the last time the King had gone to the ship, sixty years before when he had gone up to get the Son, now dead. Every trouble-minded bully from the Free Cities to the Northern Frontier had taken it as an excuse to grab anything not nailed down. Without the living royal presence the government couldn't hold.
"I wouldn’t be getting so excited if I were you," Jon told the younger boy. "This means war for sure. Even a skinny like you might not last out the year now. They'll be taking us in groups."
This shut the boy up fast. He obviously had not considered that angle at all. Any of the older Lambs, trained by fear to catch any rumor of war, would jump to that thought before any other.
Jon was working out what that meant for himself as well. He was planning an escape, and had been for years. He had no intention of letting himself be slaughtered by professional soldiers in some useless war. All of the boys dreamed of escape, planned for it after a fashion, gossiped about it after lights out. Jon knew of none who had succeeded and few enough who had even tried. Those few had been all last minute, desperate, hopelessly panicked flight.
Most of the boys were too soft and lazy, deliberately so. Conditioned by the life here to think only for the minute. The Lamb's life was carefully planned to create helpless victims. Lambs. The King wanted no repeat of the history that had created the Bandit Kings and the Free Cities. His girl children were sold off to the noble families to buy their loyalty, and his sons trained in passivity, bled white for their medicinal blood, then methodically sacrificed on the battlefield. Not me!
Billy Bones frowned and wrinkled his nose. "I think the cooks burned dinner," he said mournfully. "Today was to be chocolate cake. I hope that's not it."
Jon almost laughed at the boy's priorities, so typically Lamb-like. He was more concerned about a lost dessert than imminent death. Jon sniffed too, and through the heavy coal dust caught a whiff of smoke. "That smells like wood smoke, not cake." Most homes in the City cooked with oil, clean burning whale oil for the rich, or coal oil for the poor. The Lambs were rather old-fashioned in that heating was still done with coal. Few used wood.
"Maybe a house is on fire. Lets go up and see," Jon said, starting for the stairs. Billy Bones shot past him, energy restored at the prospect of a spectacle. Jon smiled to see his floured bottom bouncing up the steep stairs that led to the Front Hall. It would be a good joke when the other boys spotted him. Jon carefully wiped the coal dust from his own face, no need to get caught in the same gag.
"Hey!" Jon looked up the stairs to see Billy shaking his hand in pain as he stared at the iron latch. "It's hot!" he said in an accusatory tone.
Jon pushed by him and rested his hand on the thick oak door, avoiding the latch. It was distinctly warm to the touch. Jon stretched out his hand towards the latch, and could feel the heat coming off it. Smoke was thick in the air here, and he could see it coming under the door, now that he was looking for it. He glanced worriedly to Billy but didn't say anything. He thought he could hear shouts on the other side.
Taking his silk handkerchief, damp with his sweat and smudged with coal dust, he wrapped it carefully around the hot latch. "Better get back," he said to Billy, who retreated a step or two down the stairs, then craned his head around Jon's wide body to get a view. Jon took a deep breath, held it, then slammed the latch open hard and put his heavy shoulder to the door.
A wave of heat pushed him back and took off the ends of his hair and eyebrows. As quickly as he blinked, it didn't prevent him from seeing into the Front Hall. Into Hell.
Stumbling back, almost toppling backwards down the stairs but for Billy's steadying hands, Jon turned and half fell, half ran down the steps. The door boomed shut behind him.
At the bottom the two boys stopped and stared wildly at each other, panting heavily. Acrid smoke roughened their throats. Billy had seen enough to know they had no way out up the stairs. Jon had seen much more. His eyes seemed to take a long time to readjust to the dim lamplight of the cellars.
Making a quick decision, he ran over to the nearest sack of flour. Slicing the top open with his tiny pocketknife, he dumped the contents hastily out onto the floor, covering his slippers white in the process. Holding the bag in one hand he opened a second one, dumped it and handed it to Billy, who took it uncomprehendingly. Jon then raced to a cask of salt hams, smashed it violently down onto the floor and picked out several, stuffing them into his sack. He motioned violently for Billy to do the same.
Billy complied as in a daze. "Wha...," he tried to say, swallowed hard and continued. "What are we doing?" Flour and coal dust floated heavy in the air. And smoke.
Jon didn't have time to reply. He picked out two bottles of wine at random from the long wine rack and put them into his bag. It was awkward to hold, and he impatiently took one back out and carelessly dropped it to the floor, where it broke. He didn't notice, but Billy watched the wine spreading across the uneven stone slabs, melting into the flour, turning it crimson. Billy took a bottle himself and put it in his bag, imitating Jon without understanding the why. Last, Jon picked up a small pry-bar used for opening the tops of casks.
Jon had thought about this for a long time, years really, so he knew what he had to do. He just hadn't imagined he would be forced into action so precipitously. His careful plans had included a lot more preparation time. He had no way now to retrieve any of the items he had carefully collected for his escape. All he had was what he could find here in the cellar.
He paused for a second to think, and the scene above returned unbidden... Fire covered the walls and floor. On the stairs opposite a few boys and servants crouched helpless. On the floor, smothered in flame, were piles, shapeless except for an outstretched hand or foot. In the open doorway to the outside was a line of men. Not throwing water or plunging in to pull out victims, but standing ready with red swords and spears. Red from the fire? Or blood. One of the men pointed at the open door and at Jon, and a javelin flew. Jon stumbled back into darkness.
Shaking his head violently to clear his thoughts, Jon picked up a tin of whale oil. He retrieved two lamps from their pegs and filled them from the tin. Handing one to Billy he pointed to another tin and Billy picked it up, juggling all the items awkwardly in his hands. One more thing. Jon went to where he had left his lunch bag and picked it up too. It contained one item he had never intended to take with him.
Finally he headed over to the bin into which he had been so carefully shoveling coal just minutes before. Climbing heavily over the loose pile to the back wall, he held his lamp up and looked it over. It looked as solid as ever, but he knew better. Rats. Jon almost smiled. He wondered briefly if the Master was among the dead in the front hall. It was hard to imagine.
"What are you doing? We have to find a way out. I think we should try to climb the coal chute."
Jon didn’t answer, hardly heard in fact, as he sized up the wall, pushing here and there, tapping with the bar, searching for the weakest point. He hadn’t wanted to give this secret away, so he had never been able to investigate the wall as closely as he would have liked, but he had an idea of what to expect. Finally, choosing his point, near the center of the wall midway between round-arched brick support columns, Jon gave a hard push. Nothing. Backing up a step he threw his shoulder against the bricks. Nothing. Jon began to worry that he had been mistaken all these years.
He backed up to the top of the coal pile and, taking a deep breath, charged down and threw his whole weight and strength against the wall. It moved. Slightly. Jon backed up again and hit the wall. More movement. Smoke was filtering into the basement, strongly. Jon began coughing and felt the first moment of panic. He had to hurry. Either the floor above giving way or the smoke would finish them. Billy was shouting something he could not understand.
"Wait!" he shouted back, coughing. "I almost have it." He gave a last charge against the wall and it gave like paper. Jon went flying through with shards of brick and mortar raining down around his shoulders. He stopped hard against the back wall with one foot in water. He hoped it was just water, but the smell wasn’t conducive to that hope.
Jon came back into the light. He scaled the coal pile and picked up his bags where he had dropped them. Taking the lit lamp in his other hand he herded Billy ahead of him into the tunnel behind the coal bin. Without hesitation he turned to the right and started down the narrow way, tucking the pry bar into his belt.