Clovir: An Overture

Part II: Jason of the Midden

This story is the second in Clovir: An Overture, the series of short stories I am releasing in the run up to publication of The Yoga of Strength. It is a story about a man and about a place, one that plays a rather large role in The Yoga Trilogy as a whole. It’s a place that life forgot, where people are expendable and misery is rampant. Even in this place of darkness, the light shines through the cracks. I hope you enjoy it.

Jason of the Midden

"Redemption is the cup that we will drink from, because it was made for all and not just some.

Life Goes On, Satsang

Life is hard.

This is an expression so axiomatic that uttering the phrase to any soul with a beating heart on the face of Clovir will likely find you met by not so much as the twitch of an eyebrow. Life is hard in the farmland of the Thrain provinces, where it is in muck that men toil. Life is harder in the fields around the Thrain capital, Isha, where brigands and highwaymen roam to corner their quarries. Life in Isha proper is said to be harder still, with a City Guard that treats all low-born citizens the same: as a faceless enemy from which to extract plunder. Life in the Purple Run – that is the hardest life of all.

Just ask Jason Cromwell.

The yellow moon was on the wane during the later days of a chilly Harvest Month the night Jason was born. The people of Isha were preparing for a less than festive Bounty Festival, as the summer had been bookended by a cold spring as well as autumn, and the farms in the fields outside the city were not as productive as they had been in years past. Starvation had been a distinct possibility, though only a few citizens (from the Purple Run, of course) actually perished. Ostaria Cromwell, who lacked much of the daintiness that her name suggested, was at the time less interested in the fruits of the land than she was in the youngster making his way out of her belly and into the world.

It just so happened that Jason’s birthplace was to be one of the filthy garbage ditches in the Purple Run, Isha’s poorest district, a hole into which refuse was piled to be burned by the servicemen of the City. Servicemen like Jason’s father.

Not that Jason was to know his father’s true vocation for quite some time after his birth. Whilst he was growing up, Ostaria would tell the boy that him who sired Jason was a great man, a Red Knight who died in service to the King on the Liserian border. Valiantly protecting a family from a Liserian raiding party, Jason's father was struck in the thigh with a poisoned arrow by a base foreign barbarian before returning his assailant’s favour with a well-placed chop of his sword. The family whom Jason’s father had died protecting lived to see another day. They buried the fallen soldier with all the proper rites of the Church of the Christ-man.

Well, it had been an arrow to the thigh the first time Jason heard the tale. The second time, some years later, the deceased elder Cromwell had received the fatal wound to his forearm. The third time it was his foot that had been pierced by a noxious Liserian missile. By that particular telling of the story, Jason had unwound the balance of his mother’s pretty lie and listened only to humour the woman, to allow her protect whatever guilt she was holding onto regarding how he was begotten.

It was not as if it took an Inspector in the City Guard to figure it out. Only the nobility can be inducted into one of the Coloured Orders. And if Edmond Cromwell had been a nobleman, Jason was a wolfhound.

Ostaria Cromwell made her living as a whore. It was plainly obvious to Jason once he reached a certain age. He had compared the notes of his life with peers whose mothers did not see scores of new men every night after Jason had ostensibly gone to bed. Retired to his little room, scarcely bigger than a broom closet found in the larger abodes within the limits of Isha, he tried to sleep over the muffled and frantic vocalizations from his mother’s chamber.

Still, Jason allowed his mother her fiction. She did it for love, that much was clear to the growing boy. Ostaria had a desire to shield her son from some of the more heinous facts of life. And the fact was that Edmond, real last name MacAllister, present member of the Pickaxe Guild, belly full of Cistern Ale, had beaten and raped and seeded a young debutante named Osteria in an alley not too far from the midden heap where she was to later drop the pup.

MacAllister did die from a poisoned weapon, that much was true. But it hastened along by a stiletto blade coated in a heady mélange of Coxswain’s Root and Grousebane, delivered not by a Liserian soldier, but rather a newly shrouded member of the Thieves’ Guild. It was also a snatch of reality that the man had been killed before Jason was born. Derrick Cromwell had ordered the rapist’s death after a less than pleasant interrogation of Ostaria. The interrogation was prompted  because it had become apparent to Derrick and the rest of the world that his sister’s belly had swollen up beyond question a month before her arranged marriage to Cecil Tomley - a lesser baron with a small holding far from the capital - might have been consummated.

The wedding of Cecil Tomley and Ostaria Cromwell, a scandalous union of noble and commoner: it was to be one for the history books. Never mind that Osteria was née Geraldine and had changed her name with the express purpose of distancing herself from her past and making her sound more marriageable to the nobility. Never mind that Derrick and Geraldine had conspired to ensnare Cecil through a series of orchestrated chance encounters that saw Geraldine show off  the acting chops she had developed as a common urchin, bilking the naïve rich that sometimes thought themselves evolved by slumming it in the western end of Isha out of inherited coin.

Never mind that deception was the entire raison d’ètre of the Cromwell twins from the moment they came squalling into the world, killing their dirt-poor whore mother and orphaning themselves in the process.

They had spent their childhoods lying to this nun or that brother at the brutal Cistern Orphanage, doing the same to this vendor or that farmer so that they could eat after they had escaped, then on to the unsuspecting well-off in those schemes constructed to extract coin and see them safely away. It was a tapestry of deceit that wove itself throughout ever y aspect of Osteria's life, one whose threads bore the same dye, whether it was lying to a dubious merchant or exhortations of love to Cecil or three poorly remembered versions of the falsehood fed to Jason by his mother about his parentage.

The wedding was called off, of course. Cecil Tomley soon found a replacement for his pregnant beloved in a young woman named Morgaine. Their first and only son, Simon, was born within a year of their nuptials. When Derrick asked Osteria why she had not drunk of the draught that would have seen the babe pass with her first missed moon’s blood, Osteria refused to tell him the truth of the matter: she simply could not bring herself to kill child growing inside of her. Instead, she made up a story of not knowing what was happening until it was well past the time when Neptune’s Crown might have been of any help.

Derrick scoffed at her and called her a coward.

Osteria’s plans for easy economic and social prosperity dashed, she took up the harlot’s garter. Derrick, for all his rage at his twin, loved his sister dearly, and saw her set up in one of the better residences in the Run. It was still a relatively modest shack, but there were few drafts and the hearth heated the place well. The home was palatial, really, given the tents and hovels that flanked the home. After all, coin was no problem for the head of the Thieves’ Guild.

The City Guard, though: that was indeed Derrick Cromwell’s problem. Those law-shielded ruffians loved to shake him and his men down, demanding coin and free services from the women under Derrick’s careful watch. The Guard was still patrolling the Purple Run in those days, treating the populace even worse than they did the citizens in any of the rest of the districts in the City.

Protection money was a given.

For Derrick’s part, he was never prosecuted for the black work perpetrated by him or his men – the Guard simply took a ninety percent cut off the top and told the distraught victims of their crimes that the trails of their wrongdoers had gone cold. All of the watering holes and brothels were expected to fork over the lion’s and lioness’ share of their profits to the City Guard as well. Same with the little craftsmen’s shops: the weavers, the carpenters, the blacksmiths, and the dirt farmers who hawked their worst specimens to the people of the Run late in the afternoon, having sold their very best to the nobility in the Hightown market that morning. Not to mention the tailors, of course.

Tailors like Ronald Upshall.

Ronnie, as he was known to his friends, was a unique case in the Purple Run: a stalwart citizen, a man who lived by an unshakeable code of honour and did whatever he could to help his neighbours. He accepted the reality of the City Guard. He always paid those men, and did it with a smile. He offered to help mend their leather outfits whenever he noticed over their glowers that the threads of a joint were fraying. He would do the same for anyone who stepped foot in his shop, whether they had a pair of coppers to rub together or not.

Where Ronnie was a paragon of the community, Derrick was a dyed-in-the-wool scoundrel. A peddler of sin and dissolution, Derrick had little regard for those that he took money from, voluntarily or otherwise. But he did have his own version of a moral compass. He took care of his own. And as unlikely as it was, Ronnie Upshall and Derrick Cromwell were both brothers and the best of mates.

Call it an accident of circumstance: Ronnie and Derrick grew up together in the shanty town that was the Purple Run, after the Cistern Orphanage had had enough of the Cromwell twins and released them into the care of one of their young monks that had given up his vows and married. When they were very young, Ronnie and the twins did everything together. As they got older, Derrick began thieving with his sister and Ronnie stayed on the sidelines, always heeding his pious father’s directions to love his neighbours as if they were himself. Ronnie did it out of fear of reprisals in the beginning, then began to understand the joy that a life of love and service delivered into his life. Derrick, of course, never learned such a lesson. But he did love his adoptive brother, as Ronnie did him.

With no father in the picture, it was Ronnie Upshall that taught Jason Cromwell how to be a man.

A monumental task, no doubt about it. Ostaria, for all her love for her son, was still at her core the terrified orphan with no one to turn to but an equally scared little boy. Now she was a grown prostitute who stole from her clients and the scared little boy headed the most fearsome criminal outfit in Isha. Where Ronnie’s lessons were of unity and opening the boy into love, Osteria taught her son that the world was a dog eat dog shithole and the boy had better lose all trust quick or find himself in the maw of a bigger hound. She insisted that Jason apprentice himself to Derrick, to learn the dark arts of thievery and assassination so that he would always be the largest wolf in the pack.

Jason was tempted, as drawn as all boys are to shadow. Lured by promises of easy money and that other currency which was becoming all the more appealing to him – women – Jason went to see Derrick on more than one occasion. Each time, the patriarch of the Cromwell clan told the boy that Jason knew not what he asked, that he was too soft for the work which he demanded from him, and to piss off back to Ronnie.

And so Jason did.

Jason learned tailoring from Ronnie, watching deft fingers move quickly with needle and thread through the textiles and fabrics of the forsaken community that was the Purple Run. The love of those who had nothing, the joy that was transmitted between served and servant by the charity of Jason’s adoptive father – these imprinted themselves in an indelible way in the boy’s rapidly forming personality.

In spite of all of the odds his sad birth and circumstances merited, Jason chose the narrow path. He began to give of himself to the community, joining in the banter between Ronnie and this grateful auntie or that marveling urchin. He stopped spending what little coin he earned on Cistern Ale at White's Public House and began to give it back to the people of the Run. He fed and clothed those who needed it most. He found happiness early in his life, a measure of peace that few ever find even if they reach old age.

His mother, on the other hand, was one such case of a lost soul fallen before redemption. Ostaria’s habits of deception and thievery saw to that. One fateful Harvest Month evening in the early years of Jason's adulthood, after a rather well-off gentleman had finished with her and was snoring in her lumpy bed, she was tempted to reach over and look into his satchel. She found a rosary, a Holy Tome, and a dagger before her hand was grabbed by the wary owner of the bizarre trove. He made to rape her for her insolence. She fought back. He opened her throat with the blade and burst from the house at a trot, knowing full well the connections the dead prostitute had in life.

Once the initial shock that accompanied learning about the death of his adoptive sister had worn off, Ronnie was touched that Jason had come to him and not first tried his luck with Derrick. He knew that Derrick’s response to the slaying would be swift and final. Whoever was this client Osteria’s, the foolish creature would no doubt see the end of a poisoned stiletto within brief hours of Derrick discovering his sister’s murder.

Ronnie was certain that changing the future was impossible, at least insofar as the murderer’s fate was concerned. But perhaps he could modulate the flow of time and space. The young Cromwell might yet not see himself lost in rage and grief, both his own and his uncle’s. He would not put it past Derrick to force the young man into wielding the cold blade of revenge himself. All of the choices that Jason had made in his earlier years were simply a prelude to this moment. The crucible in which the young man found himself had at its end a forked path: one way to perdition, the other to salvation. This was indisputable fact to Ronnie. Salvation was the goal. That meant finding a place for Jason to go, far away from the desperation of the Purple Run.

Ronnie took a bloodstained Jason by the arm and led him out of his shop, out of the Run and into the western market, past Parvati’s Weavery, and then on again by Magnusson’s Arms Shop, each clomp of his boot like a metronome playing in the tailor’s head. Louder than the sound of footsteps was the song of the man's faith: a solution to the problem would show itself, if only they kept moving.

Jason was disappointed with Ronnie’s reaction. He did not understand the elder’s compunction to flee. He preparing to break from him, to return to his home and cradle his mother’s corpse once more. To find an uncle who would make things right. Someway, somehow, Derrick would know what to do. Whomever had done it would pay, Jason was sure of that.

“Oy! Lads! Hangin’ off each othah like that: ya ain’t buggers, is ya? The King’s Justice awaits sods like ye.”

Both Ronnie and Jason looked up. It was a City Guard, standing next to an alley with one hand on the hilt of his mace. The Harvest Month moon, nearly full but on the wane, hung low and yellow in the sky, just visible above the cityscape that surrounded the trio. The inverted crimson triangle of the Guard’s uniform was the scarlet of blood in the moonlight. Moonlight that revealed more of the same shade on Jason’s tunic, soaked up not an hour before when the young man was bawling and holding his mother’s head in his lap.

The City Guard’s self-important smirk grew grim.

“Who’d ya kill, lad? Tell me now or I bash yer b’yfriend’s ‘ead in.’

“Now, please, sir, we don’t want no trouble-“ Ronnie began.

The butt of the mace silenced the surrogate father’s tongue, slicing the quieted organ in the process, breaking several teeth and sending him sputtering to the cobbles beneath their feet. Jason shrieked and dropped to his knees next to a loved one for the second time that night.

“’Oy! Are ye fuckin’ deaf, ya pooftah? Who. Did. Ya. Kill. Don’t think I won’t do it!” The Guard raised his mace in an exaggerated way over Jason and Ronnie. Little did the pair know that they had run into Xavier Gosse, one of the most sadistic creatures ever to grace Precinct Fifteen, that exceptionally corrupt detachment of City Guard tasked with bringing the King's Justice to the Purple Run.

“I never killed ‘er,” Jason screamed. “It was me mother, someone else killed ‘er! I’ll take you to ‘er!”

Ronnie’s eyes went wide as he watched his adoptive nephew give a City Guard information with which he could bury the young man. Ronnie was as happy-go-lucky as they came, but he was not naïve. The man knew from experience the folly of relying on the King’s Justice for anything except brutality.

“Up then, b’y,” growled Constable Gosse. “Bring the pillow bitah.”

The march back to Jason’s home was filled with terror. Ronnie spat blood and shambled. Jason tried once to help him by offering him a shoulder, but Gosse responded to this act of kindness with a gloved fist to the back of the boy’s head, launching him down into his own sprawl. The Guard refused to let Ronnie help the boy up, threatening the injured man with a bulging viper’s gaze.

When they did finally make it back to the house, Gosse eyed the building and then swiveled towards Jason.

“Ya rich, Run filth? Empty yer pockets.”

Jason did as he was told, fishing a few tin coins from his garments and placing them gingerly in the psychopath’s outstretched palm. Gosse closed his fist and demanded to know why he did not have more coin.

“It’s me mother’s 'ouse, not mine!”

Gosse’s eyes narrowed, and then he motioned with his head towards the front door of the shack. He commanded both men to enter before him. And so they did, Ronnie and Jason each silently praying that he would draw breath when the sun rose once more.

When Xavier Gosse stepped into Ostaria Cromwell’s room, all doubts about his suspicions concerning the boy’s mother disappeared into the ether. He had not worked the Purple Run for twelve years without having become well-acquainted with the telltale signs of a whore’s hovel. There was a little lockbox hidden near the front of the bed, where the bitch put her coin. There was an iron poker on the other side, no doubt her protection from the scourge of a violent john, a weapon that she appeared to not have been able to reach before her throat was cut. Finally, there was a small washbasin near the head of her bed: water for the post-coitus wash.

“Run filth with a dirty whore of a mothah selling her cunny to keep a nice roof over yer ‘eads,” assessed Constable Gosse. He crossed to the lockbox, tried to open, found it locked, then smashed the little wood-and-tin storage device with a lazy swing of his mace. Inside was all of Ostaria’s savings: both money she had earned from her evening work and coin simply given to her by Derrick every time he felt guilty about something he had done to her. That happened often. There was a small fortune inside.

Constable Gosse’s sixth sense, the grace granted predators to see them survive a day of carnage, engaged. The boy looked a poor wretch (Jason preferring to spend his coin on charity than himself), yet here was clear proof of wealth in the family. Something was up. Was this a trap?

“Oy’, lad, what the fuck! Why ya living in the Run if yer mothah is so gods-damned rich?”

Unfortunately for every man in the room, what the good Constable Gosse failed to realize was the hard fact that money alone did not see a woman and her misbegotten son free from the hellhole that was the Purple Run. There was a reason Geraldine had become Ostaria, why she and her brother had worked so hard to marry into the nobility. Money simply was not enough to move up the social ladder. One had to have status, and neither Derrick nor Ostaria Cromwell had that, nor could they simply buy it. They were nobodies, and nobodies could not own land outside of the Run freely.

Nobodies could not escape.

“Pillow bitah – tell me what ye knows. Now!”

Gosse pulled the older man from Ostaria’s chamber and threw him out into the living room, where he would have more space to do his work. The City Guard was reaching the end of this thirties, and the invasive species that was grey hair was making a claim on his black mane. But he still had the wiry strength that had not failed him since the day he was a freshly-minted City Guard, doe-eyed and dreaming of law and order. Well before the cold realities of Isha had ground him into the animal that he had become by that cold Harvest Month night. Xavier Gosse started striking Ronnie with gloved fist before the tailor had a chance to respond to the barked command.

If the Morti-Chirurgeon assigned to the case had bothered to even pretend to do his job on Ronnie in the aftermath of that night’s events, he might have found an enlarged heart, one strained to the point of failure due to a defect of the tailor’s birth. A failure that occurred somewhere between the sixth and tenth blow laid upon Ronnie by the psychopathic Constable Gosse. Gosse let up after the twentieth, bloodlust somewhat sated and him now eager get some answers from a dead Ronald Upshall.

“Ya kill't 'im!” Jason screamed, trying to slap his surrogate father’s face back to life. “Ya kill't 'im!”

As fate would have it, it was around this time that Derrick Cromwell walked through the front door. He had just been over at Ronnie’s shack, asking the newly-deceased man’s wife where her husband could be found. Isla Upshall told Derrick that Jason had just been by the house, blood-stained and in a panic. She knew nothing of their whereabouts, Ronnie simply told her that he had to help the boy and he would be back soon. Then uncle and nephew set off into the night. Isla was distraught, but knew better than to ask questions. She did not tell Derrick that she was somewhat disappointed with the turn of events, given that she had missed her moon’s blood a week before and had been planning to tell Ronnie the happy news that very night. Not that the thief lord would have been much interested: Derrick was not even aware that the couple had been trying to conceive a child for over a decade.

Derrick did not pause as his well-trained assassin’s mind assessed the situation, removed a blade from a scabbard strapped to his left forearm, and buried the poison-rubbed metal in the Guard’s neck. Thus ended the reign of terror that was Xavier Gosse. The other members of his own Precinct Fifteen would have taken the time to rejoice at the death of their horrific fellow had his death not been the first slaying of over one hundred City Guards, a series of blood-lettings ordered by Derrick as payback for the deaths of his brother and sister. This campaign of terror earned the man the nickname ‘Mad Derrick.’ Mad Derrick was so effective at mayhem that a backroom armistice was eventually signed: the Run would police itself, and the City Guard would less-than-kindly fuck off.

Jason – well, Jason did stand broken at his fork. He was tested. Derrick whispered venom into his ear, urging his nephew to take up the black shroud of the Thieves’ Guild and bathe in the frigid blood of a revenge he so richly deserved.  He would have done it, too, if not for a conversation he had with Isla Upshall a couple of days after his mother’s body was burned on the pyre.

Jason was not to ever tell a living soul what the pregnant widow had said to him on his twenty-first birthday, but he left the Upshall shack feeling lighter. He made a beeline for the eastern part of the city, not the breathtaking section called Hightown where the upper crust of the nobility dwelled, but rather the row of houses in which the merchant middle class had built their homes. They did not have titles, but they had earned some small scrap of respect from their betters. A measure of respect greater than that reserved for Run filth, at the very least.

In front of a large house that said ‘MacAllister’ on the mailbox, Jason sized up the three stories of stone and wood, a mansion compared to his locally prodigious Purple Run abode. He slammed the knocker home thrice, spoke briefly with the middle-aged woman who answered the door, and then made his merry way to yet another unfamiliar building.

This one was in the eastern market, where the nobility ran their daily messages. A large sign hung perpendicular above the door, curved like a spade and bearing an image of that very tool, crossed with a pickaxe on the field of a green shield. Jason entered the Pickaxe Guild and did not exit again until several hours had passed. By that time, he was bedecked in the tri-corner felt hat and patched vest that made up the uniform of his new vocation.

In that place, Jason told a small lie. It was the last he ever told, for salvation was the young man’s choice. After all, nobodies cannot leave the Purple Run.

In honour of his father’s service as a Red Knight, Jason was to be assigned not to the streets of Isha, but rather to the Yellow Order, keeping the barracks clean and helping in the kitchens. And mending, of course. A man with Jason’s skill with needle and thread would most certainly be needed for mending.

Yes, Jason Cromwell might tell you that life is hard.

More likely than that, however: the man would tell you that it is surprising and sweet and full of joy, if only we would open our eyes to see.