This is the follow-up to the story posted yesterday. As I mentioned, this was written during the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2015. Originally, I had done research, plotting, characterization, setting, dialogue, etc. for the story I wrote yesterday. But then, when discussing with the instructor at Odyssey, we came to the conclusion that the story didn’t hold up very well, and we scoped out some differences. So I went back and re-wrote. Completely. And I came up with the following. Which is better? Why?
Discovering Virtue (version 2)
The land of Atlantis, it was once said, was “beautiful, and filled with many kinds of good peoples, and animals, and wine, and commerce.” That the god Poseidon made his home in the temple there, and accepted worship and sacrifice for his just rule. That men, women, horses and sheep, grains and fruits and trees grew strong and vibrant.
As with all good things, that too must have passed. For times of beauty and times of sadness exchange, in order to understand either. Despite all their knowledge and virtue, their luxury and ease, the kingdoms of Atlantis began to turn on one another. A season, perhaps many seasons, of disorder befell the land. After a century of war the fields lay torn, the animals scattered, and the great library had burned. In retaliation the cliffs broke away from their restraints and threw half the city into the sea, taking with them the records of what happened and the opportunity to restore greatness.
For thousands of years, then, the land and the people waited, though they did not recognize it. Outside, on the shores of Africa and Europe the legends spread of a mighty empire once stretched from sea’s edge to sea’s edge, now beneath the waves.
When ships once again appeared at the horizon, then, none could grasp the significance. They had been so burdened with themselves they had forgotten that lands lay beyond the ocean, and the arrival of the New Men brought many changes.
Not the least of these was that their leader, one called Columbus, stained his sword with the blood of the Queen, stole her seat on the throne, and banished the prince and princess.
For nearly a year the resentment at Columbus’s reign grew, manifested in small rebellions scattered throughout the city. It cannot be said with certainty that the chance of success is what drove the New Men off. It should not even be suggested. For though Columbus made news of a departure, he also promised to return with hundreds more men, thousands, many times his current force, and claim the entire land for himself.
All the same preparations for departure continued. On an overcast afternoon, close after the midday meal, Atlantean workers and New Men loaded crates of grain, salted meats, barrels of wine, and countless other foodstuffs into the ships’ holds. Kelleron Mnestos stood on the top deck of one, translating between the two languages. Kelleron enjoyed the task, for it meant that the New Men would soon be gone.
He had taken to the Spanish language easily, for it was his task to learn new languages. He was apprentice to the current Speaker for the Queen, who though she had no queen continued to hold the title. The Speaker translated amongst the half-dozen languages on the land, and thus needed others who were good at picking up new tongues. After fifteen years living in the city and studying with the Speaker Kelleron had learned four other tongues Taking Spanish from the New Men had been easy work.
“Where to put the dried apples?” came a question from an Atlantean. Kelleron asked Paolo, the head New Man on this ship and third in command overall. Paolo was reasonable, but he was not Franco. Franco too was a master of languages, and so Kelleron felt a kinship with him. Franco had taught him Spanish, he had taught Franco the Atlantic tongue, and they moved easily between them. Not so when loading boxes and translating. Kelleron flowed with the crowd as they went up and down the ramps, into and out of the holds, stacking and shoving and arranging and rearranging.
As he returned to the deck he tripped over something hard and heavy and that clanked as he did. A chain. A chain attached to the wall, with shackles attached. Now what would a trading ship need shackles for? He decided it must be for those times when sailors get out of order and must be kept away from the rest, for fear of hurting any. As he had no plans to be on the ship any more than necessary, he put it out of his mind and moved on.
He emerged from the hold behind Paolo and two other New Men speaking. The Speaker said that the man who tells you everything, because he thinks you understand nothing, is not to be trusted. Kelleron crouched behind a pile of rope and sail and crept closer.
“When do we load the special cargo?” one man asked.
“Night after tomorrow,” Paulo answered. “We still have need of it until then. Are all the holds ready?”
“This finished yesterday, the Santa Maria today, and the Pinta tomorrow. Strong chains,” the man said, “good construction.” All three laughed, and Kelleron felt his blood chill. Chains for cargo? Cargo was loaded in crates and barrels. Chains held shackles and men. Men were not cargo. Unless–
He crept back to the hold door and descended a few steps, then made noise coming out again. He emerged and saw Paolo staring at him. “What else, Paolo? What do we do now?” He hoped he did not sound strange. “Must we load all those today?”
“About half,” Paolo said. “We get the rest tomorrow.”
About half took hours, and when they finished the sky had cleared and the sun descended towards the mountains to the west. Kelleron released the Atlanteans and they scattered back to their places within the city’s Living Quarter. Kelleron did not go to his own rooms, but instead hastened for his cousin Sephone.
The Living Quarter had straight streets and tight buildings, many stories high, with gardens mixed in. A set of rooms would include one waking room, one sleeping room, a cleaning room (for both bath and waste), and perhaps a storage room. They were all small, but comfortable for city residents. If one wanted more space, one changed to the farmsteads outside the city walls, where homes had room to grow as the animals did.
Kelleron moved through the streets quickly and ably, and yet because of the sameness all around missed Sephone’s building the first time.
When he found the place he ran up the stairs and knocked. In his impatience he hopped from side to side. He knocked again and heard noise. He knocked a third time, and Sephone appeared.
“You don’t have to beat the door in,” she said.
Kelleron pushed by her and paced across the waking room. Oil lamps on the shelves gave twisting shadows, reminding him of the uncertain light inside the ship’s hold.
“You look worried,” she said. “Has there been trouble?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe.” He told her the things he’d found and heard on the ship. “It looks like they’re planning to take Atlanteans back with them. In chains.”
She gasped, covering her mouth with a hand. “No, they can’t!”
“I think they very well can,” Kelleron said. “They have all the power, don’t they? Heaven knows, if anyone stands up against Columbus he’s likely to feel his head roll. Even the New Men are not safe around him.” There had been three deaths of his crew in the last year, two by his own sword.
He stopped pacing. “Are you still in contact with the guild?”
She nodded. “They haven’t been able to do anything in the past few months. They seem scared.”
He took a large breath, held it, and blew across his teeth. “I’m scared, too, but I think we have to do something.”
“What can you do? What can they do?”
He opened the door. “We can stop them. I need the guild’s help. Will you show me the way?” A great heaviness settled within Kelleron’s stomach.
The Merchant Quarter was not easy to navigate. There streets swerved up hills and around wide boulders. The buildings stood irregular, with mottled stone fronts and crumbling shingled eaves. Sephone issued simple directions, left here, right there. Most who spent their days here had already left, so their steps echoed off the walls. They stopped at a low door in a shadowed alley, and she gave a cryptic knock.
The door opened, just enough, and they slipped inside. It was a working room, small and efficient, with books piled on shelves and lamps lit all round. A table at the back held stacks of papers and writing quills, ink bottles and straight-edged rulers. Men and women stood talking in a half-circle. It was a few moments before they recognized Sephone and welcomed her into the circle.
She introduced him. He only caught the name of one, a man named Zander, with a bald head and small white beard, who seemed to be in control. They discussed struggles meeting Columbus’s demands for supplies and the punishments given to the farmsteaders for not providing enough. They rejoiced over ships loaded for a long trip. They questioned whether it was for returning to their world, or for more attempts at conquest along the shores of Atlantis. All wished it were the former.
“You will be happy and unhappy then.” Kelleron said. “Columbus plans to return to Spain day after tomorrow.” A cheer rippled through the tight space. “I fear he is taking captives along.” They quieted in a moment.
Zander turned on Sephone. “Do you believe that? Do you confirm what he says?”
Sephone put a hand on Kellar’s shoulder. “I have not seen what he says he has seen, no. You can take his word, though. Our mothers are sisters. We had neighboring farmsteads growing up. In all that time, I never heard him tell a single lie. Even when he could have, and none would have been the wiser.” Her face was a mask of pride. “He is the model of Atlantean virtue. You can believe him.”
Zander still looked distrustful. “Not sure I agree with it all, but I’ll listen to your tale.” He turned back to Kelleron. “Lucky your cousin has such standing in this group, or we’d throw you out on your ear for rumoring. Tell me more.”
Kelleron left nothing out. The conclusion was clear to him. Some in the group, who had more history of feeling double-crossed by Columbus and his crew, did not believe so easily.
Zander’s forehead tightened. “So what would you have us do?”
Kelleron had been waiting for this. “I think we need to stop them from taking the captives. Can you tell the men who will be loading the ships tomorrow not to go? They won’t be captured if they don’t show up.”
Zander’s voice came lower. “No, they will just take men and women off the streets and put them in the chains.” He stroked his beard. “I think there is only one thing to do. We must kill Columbus.” The room fell silent. He looked at Kelleron with the intensity of a wolf on the hunt. “You will have to do it.”
“Me?” Kelleron shook his head. “I have an oath to my father not to kill another man.” His father had fought in the last battles of the border war, and come home a walking clump of clay. Sephone’s father had not even returned. He had promised he would never make another man’s children go through such pain. He looked at Sephone and saw her of two minds.
“If you don’t,” she said, “then how many will die at Columbus’s hands? On the ship or in Spain? What might happen to them there?” She took his hand, begging. “I know you want to honor your father, but Zander’s right. You have ways to get close to Columbus none of us could ever have. They have poison–”
“No,” he said, firmly cutting her off. “I won’t do it. I made that promise and I will keep it. Columbus or not.” He felt a tearing at his own heart, too, that did wish to rid the world of Columbus. “He’ll go,” he said, adding emphasis. “He’ll go and I will not let him take Atlanteans along.” He strode to the door. “Sephone said you too wished Columbus gone. But I guess it means you’re not willing to work to keep your fellow men from the chains.” He threw the handle and stepped into the full dark night.
“Kelleron!” Sephone called and followed him. “What are you doing?”
“Whatever I have to,” he said. “Whatever I can live with.”
They made their way as quick as they could out of the Merchant Quarter, past the Living Quarter, past the Leisure Quarter, and towards the city’s highest point. There they would find the palaces and halls where the Kings and Queens ruled. When the New Men had first arrived, they thundered along the same streets where Kelleron and Sephone ran. The moon, half-full, hung overhead, adding to the many lamps and torches lining the ways.
He ducked through an archway and crossed a small garden. “Where are we–” Sephone began, but Kelleron cut her off with a shhhh. The evening had deepened while they were with the guild, and in the getting there and back, but still it was not late enough for the New Men to be asleep. They would probably be enjoying the evening with their captain, their bottles, their women, and their songs. Kelleron expected they would remain occupied, but must not be stupid.
They entered a hallway beside the garden, which grew behind the main courtyard. From the hallway they could reach many hidden places within the palace, places where the New Men seldom went. They moved through the empty corridors, emerging near the working rooms. In them the Advisors, and their assistants, spent their days. Kelleron suspected Columbus had usurped these, too, to plan the ruin of lives. If so, he might be able to find a way to stop them.
He told Sephone to wait outside and watch while he entered the first, searching in the near-darkness for something, any sign. This one looked like the place of the Musician. Though there were papers, books, writing tools and instruments all over, there seemed to be nothing related to voyages.
The next two were for the General, over the army, and the Priest, maintaining order amongst sacrifices within the palace temples. The fourth was for the Merchant, and in this space Kelleron found blessing. End to end and top to bottom maps, schedules, trade agreements, and recording books stuffed the space. He searched the stacks on the table and found, thank the gods, a bundle explaining the items Columbus demanded for the journey. Including the requirements for chains, shackles, and food for the additional cargo. The sheets burned his hand with their wickedness. What to do?
He couldn’t take it with him to the guild. It was written in Spanish. They would say he was making it up. Why would he make up something so drastic? He needed a way to stop the New Men from acting at all.
He returned to the doorway where Sephone watched the hall. He reached across and took the small lamp from the wall. “Kell,” she said. He ignored it.
He returned to the table. “Kell,” Sephone’s voice came again, a little more urgently. He would burn the plans and the sea charts. The New Men would be delayed. There would be time to convince the guild and then they would help. He put one sheet inside his robe.
He opened the lamp’s door and brought the flame towards a page. “Kelleron!” Sephone smacked his hand, startling him. “Someone’s coming!” She grabbed the lamp and his wrist. They slipped out the back entrance into another corridor.
Just then Kelleron heard the boots of a New Man enter the room. He came to the back entrance as well, stuck his head out, and peered into the darkness. This hallway had no lamps or torches, and Sephone had put out theirs in a moment. The New Man returned and took up a position within the room. Kelleron’s heart bounced off the bones inside, and it took him minutes to get calm. They snuck through the passageways, fumbling for something familiar, until a convenient turn brought them back to the courtyard garden.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I could have gotten you hurt. Or killed.”
“No harm to me. Did you get what you need?”
“I saw the orders. I held them and I could have destroyed them.” He hung his head as he held out the single sheet he’d taken. “Just a few minutes more.”
“I think I should go,” she said. He led her back to the main avenue, and she gave him a hug. “Be well.
The morning dawned clear, bright, and terrible. Kelleron had spent the night in his sleeping room but had not slept. How could he when ruin was so close?
He arrived at the docks midmorning. He forced his face into a calm and comfortable image. If he showed worry he might draw attention.
The expanse of crates and goods loaded onto the ships slowly shrunk as the day passed. When it looked as if there was only one more hour’s worth of work, Kelleron searched out Franco. If any of the New Men would listen, it might be him.
He found Franco on the Santa Maria, translating orders and helping to ensure safe stowage of the goods. At a break in the work Kelleron caught his elbow and asked for a moment.
They entered the captain’s stateroom. The small size surprised him. He could cross it in two paces. Like everything else on the ship, every bit of space held the necessities of sea travel. “What do you want?” Franco asked. The New Men were shorter than the Atlanteans, and yet it seemed Franco loomed over him, with his position and power.
“I need to know if I can trust you, Franco. I need to know if I can believe you. That you won’t turn me in to Columbus for what I might say now.”
Franco leaned against the desk and crossed his arms. “Speak, forget your fear. We have become close, no? If you feel you cannot talk to me, then why have you asked?”
A windstorm crowded his mind, pushing on the things to say or do or hope. “What are the chains for, in the ships? Are they for enslaving men?”
Franco hesitated, the color draining from his face. “Your job is to translate, not to question the Captain’s orders.” His voice came lower. “I recommend you let this issue drop.”
Kelleron would not. He pulled the stolen sheet from within his robe. “I found this last night. It says to have food for a hundred and eighty men to cross the sea. There are less than ninety in your crew. What is the rest for?”
Franco would not meet his eyes. “Do not ask if you are not willing to accept the answers.”
That was enough for Kelleron. He spoke carefully, for if he did not he felt he would shout. “Do you agree? Do you think it is good to take men from their homes and chain them in bondage?”
“Good?” Franco looked out the small window. “Nothing is good here. It could have been so much better.” There was a slight hitch as he spoke. “We could have been partners, allies in this new world. Could have done so much more for both our lands.”
Kelleron sensed an opening. “You would have done better as Captain.” Franco tensed.
“It is not for me to wonder what I or anyone else would have done,” he said. “It is for me to translate, not to moralize, not to judge. Who can say whether the power would not have turned me as it did him?” He sat in the small chair with a thump.
“But you do not agree with what he’s done. What he’s going to do. So why do you go along? Why do you not say ‘no’? Are you so struck by money and power that you are blind to their effects?”
Franco said nothing, staring at his hands.
“Why is Columbus doing this? Why drag men from their homes and lock them in chains? It would be so much better to become allies, partners across the sea. Both worlds could benefit. All this does is put his foot directly in the viper’s nest.”
“The same reason anyone does anything. For money, power, or fame.” He looked at Kelleron, and there was an emptiness on his face. “When we return to Spain, the men will be sold and the money will be used to buy new ships, hire new men. Columbus plans to return and take the whole land, not just this city.”
“All the more reason to stop him!”
Franco shook his head. “It would take a full crew to mutiny. Columbus still holds the allegiance of most. Only a few look past their own feet to see the truth.”
Kellar’s spirit fell. “So you won’t help.”
“I would, but there is nothing to be done.”
“I am a realist. If two or three stand against forty, what power do they have? They waste their life jousting at a wall.” He stood again. He looked a wounded, weak man. “We must wait for better opportunities. I’m sorry.”
Kelleron turned without acknowledging the apology, left the room, and stalked off the ship, fury blinding his eyes. If Franco wouldn’t help him, he would do it himself.
Darkness had fallen by the time he had the things he needed. He had begged Sephone to come again and help. She agreed but with the condition that this was the last help she would give.
They carried the packets close inside their robes and the lamplighters away from them. It would do no good to have the bursts in the wrong place.
The bursts would come from colorflames. Many shops within the city sold them. With a spark the balls launched into the night sky and beautified the darkness. It had taken a dozen stops before Kelleron found one that would give him something stronger than normal. The shop keep said it was dangerous, and if anything happened, he knew nothing.
They made their way back to the docks, hiding in whatever shadows they could find. He and Sephone made their way towards one of the boats. The walkway was up, forcing them to pause and consider. Kelleron handed his colorflame balls to Sephone, and dove into the water. He swam the few feet to the ship, grasped a rope, and climbed up to the deck. His arms and legs burned with the effort. He heaved himself over the rail and found the walkway, extended it back to the dock. Sephone ran to join him.
He found the cover to the hold. They entered, and waited for their eyes to adjust to the even greater darkness inside. Kelleron said, “We have to find the chains. They’re attached to the outer wall in multiple places. If we can light the colorflames nearby, it should make a big hole. The chains won’t hold, but the ships will still sail. Columbus will have to leave with nothing.”
Sephone asked, “Where do we go first?”
They felt around in the darkness for a minute until Sephone stumbled into something hard and metal on the floor. They followed it along, feeling the steel’s intimidating cold. Where the chain ended, attached to a large ring near the front, they stopped. She waited there while he followed the links in the other direction. There was a similar ring over half the boat’s length away. He had counted thirty shackles as he passed. Even one was too many. Those thirty men would be sitting shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, for a month before they arrived, starving and dirty, in a strange land. They should be outside, walking the promenades and taking in the theater and singing songs with their nieces and nephews. Kelleron’s resolve grew stronger.
He placed three charges around the ring holding the chain to the wall and held them with small pats of putty from the shop keep. “Ready?” he called.
“Yes, but–” He heard a thunk. “One of these colorflames keeps falling.” She grunted. “There. Ready.”
They took out their lamplighters. Kelleron made a practice spark. He saw an echo in the darkness. “On three, light the first. We only have one minute on the wick, so you have to be quick.” He counted down and flicked a spark near the string.
It caught on the first try, fizzing and sparking even more in the dark. The miniature sun burned his dark-adjusted eyes, startling him backwards. He squinted and flicked again, setting the second aflame, and the third. In the flickering lights now, as if they were torches on the wall, he could see the hold stacked to the top. Sephone had two lit and was aiming for the third. One dropped off the wall and she rushed to pick it back up and shove it onto the putty again. Her hands shook and Kelleron stumbled over and around the boxes. “Sephone!” He rounded a corner and heard a burst from behind, and another from the front. “Seph!” Soon the hold was full of light and smoke from additional bursts, and then the light disappeared and the air held a scarring stench. He stumbled in what he thought was the right direction and reached the wall.
He crawled on hands and knees and found her, still on the cold, wooden deck. He touched first a shoulder, felt her neck, her body, her arms that lay limp when he lifted them. His cousin, dead in his arms, and it was his fault.
No, he thought. It’s not my fault. It’s his. He cried, holding Sephone’s body close, breathing in the tang of the smoke and her smell underneath it, of dancing and the theater and of running on the promenade. He had ruined it. He had caused her death. All because of some stupid vow. He tried to honor his father, so that a man might not die, even though he deserved to, and with what result? Someone else had. If he’d listened to her, to them, the first time, she would still be alive.
He knew what he would do. What he must do. What he alone could do. He would kill Columbus.
It was difficult to leave her, but Kelleron had no way to do anything else. He knew she would be found in the morning, when the New Men came to inspect their ships, and it would appear as if she had been the only one. As much has he hated leaving, he had to move forward and avenge the loss.
His feet somehow took him to the guild house, as if she led him. He knocked in the way she had, and it was a time before anyone arrived. When he had chilled in the cool breeze, Zander opened the door, glanced at the cold, wet man, and stepped aside. The room was otherwise empty.
No use missing the mark. “I’m ready,” he said. “Can you help me kill Columbus?” The older man nodded once, a quick motion. He disappeared into a back room and came out holding a wine bottle.
Kelleron exploded. “You want to have a drink? Now?” He reached out to choke him, and found himself grasping air.
“Calm, calm yourself. This is not for you nor I.” He handed it to Kelleron. “Get this to Columbus. Do not drink it.” He also gave over a tiny bottle, which he could put in a pocket. “They will search you, so they need something to find,” he said. After a few other reminders, he hustled Kelleron out, scolding him for taking so much time already. Kelleron ran.
He found Columbus and the rest of the New Men indeed celebrating within the royal hall. He followed the music and the shouts to a large room filled with people. Bottles and glasses lay on their side, and a few men did too. The feast stood half-eaten.
A New Man at the entrance stopped him and searched, and did indeed find the small bottle. The guard shouted a triumphant call, and everyone turned to mock him. Columbus, too, and Franco, and Paolo and all the rest, watched. He made a short bow, and said, as gentle as he could, “Ah, you have me. You did well,” and clapped the guard on the shoulder. He looked towards the head of the group and raised the bottle. “A toast? To wish you luck on your voyage.”
Columbus waved him over. He walked slowly. His gaze caught Franco’s, who stared without speaking. He approached the usurper. A man who pretended to be King over a land he never cared for. A snake who sought money, power, and fame. A worm with the audacity to presume he could enslave a hundred men without cause.
The room quieted. Kelleron opened the bottle and poured the thick red liquid into a wineglass. He placed it in Columbus’s hand, brushing his fingers as he did. A power tingled through his own flesh, startling him, and he drew back.
Columbus lifted the glass, nodded, and prepared to take his end. Kelleron held his breath. Father, forgive me, he thought. I am doing what I must. The edge touched Columbus’s lips. The liquid rippled. Suddenly it reversed. Columbus straightened his arm and set the glass on the table.
“Excuse me.” He addressed the room. “How rude. I have not shared with our guest.” The New Men laughed and Columbus twisted the bottle from Kelleron’s hand. He poured another glass and held it to him. “After you,” he said, with another tilt of his head.
Kelleron breathed in, sharp, to gather his nerves. He hoped his hand did not shake. He accepted the glass, raised it high. “For good luck,” he said, and the crowd cheered. He opened his lips, filled his mouth, and presented the empty glass to the crowd. They cheered again. Columbus picked up his own and drained it.
Kelleron turned aside and spat the mouthful of danger onto the floor. His tongue shook and lips burned. If he felt like this–he turned to see Columbus’s eyes wide, a hand at his chest, breath uneven. Darkness clouded Kelleron’s vision, but before it came he saw Columbus sink to the floor. The weight of the ocean reached upward, sucking him deeper into the darkness. He resisted, tried to stand, but could not. He fell.
When Kelleron had regained strength enough to ask, Zander told him the story. That the New Men had declared whomever woke first would choose the fate of the other. Columbus had died an hour later, but Kelleron had lain in the faint for a whole day. Paolo and Franco had both stood as replacements for Captain, and the New Men had chosen Franco.
With his first act, he destroyed the orders to take prisoners in chains. The voyage would be a true partnership, and any who wished could come. Three dozen New Men behind stayed to seek their fortune in the new world. They filled the crew with sixty Atlanteans. Franco offered a position to Kelleron but he refused, choosing to stay, mourn Sephone, and continue as apprentice to the Speaker. There would be a new King and Queen soon, as the prince and princess in exile would return and take their rightful place within the month.
They sailed ten days after Columbus died, bearing true gifts and true trade. They sailed for opportunity and glory. They sailed for history and for the future. They sailed to bring Atlantis back from the depths of obscurity, and to bring the world to Atlantis. Finally, they sailed in partnership, bridging the space between old and new, wrong and right, legend and truth.