::Acquired Taste

The Website of Tim Stretton


::The Betrayal Facts

All of the characters in the story feature in Dragonchaser, generally in minor roles.

Corrando, the villain of the story, was originally a minor character in Dragonchaser who became more interesting as the novel developed.

By contrast, the protagonist Carnazan was intended to be a major character in Dragonchaser.  The development of the plot left him high and dry, and by the second draft his role diminished almost to invisibility.



 
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::The Betrayal (2004)

"The Betrayal" was written as the final submission for my Advanced Management Development Programme. It was at best a limited success in that context, as it fitted only poorly with the themes I was exploring at work (the British public sector does not encourage armed insurrection or sabotage).  On a literary level it also failed to fulfil its ambitions.  I had long intended to write a story based on the particular narrative reversal which structures this piece.  The story still remains to be written, as "The Betrayal" is imperfectly executed.  In retrospect it was a mistake to try to knit the story into the Dragonchaser universe.  We live and learn.  The cover, below, is the best thing about it.

 

 

 

 



        This morning I am early for my rendezvous. That’s not usual for me, but then today is hardly a normal day. This is the day when, one way or another, our long resistance to Bartazan and his oppression comes to an end. Three years of hiding, raids in the night, the occasional fleeting success and more frequent crushing setback. I think I’m allowed to be a little early.

        We meet, of course, in the Waterside Tavern. We’re all regular patrons of Panduletta’s establishment: no spy of Corrando’s could get a foothold in here. We’re as safe in these familiar surroundings as anywhere.
        Allara comes in and quickly sits down. She is dressed as stylishly as ever, and carries herself with the understated poise of an Elector’s daughter, but these days her heart is not in couture. She gives me a quick smile but I can’t meet her eyes. She looks tired, I think, although I can’t imagine I’m much better myself. Inisse’s capture has obviously hit her hard. Of all of us, he was the one who knew from experience what Bartazan’s dungeons were like, and his fear at the thought of capture was palpable. It’s not just Inisse, of course, it’s the cumulative effect: Koopendrall, Dandret, Florio. One by one Corrando’s constables have picked us off, sometimes overtly, sometimes not. Is it any wonder we become informants and collaborators? I grimace – best not to dwell on this.
        “Are you ready?” asks Allara. “Do you really think this will work?”
        I laugh nervously. “The odds are hardly on our side. But what have we got to lose?”
        Allara runs her finger round the rim of her mug. I notice her normally immaculate nails have been bitten back. “Ask Inisse what we have to lose,” she said quietly. “Things are bad now – but imagine what they look like from inside the dungeons. We don’t have to do this, you know.”
        I shut my eyes and lean my head back. Why does she have to be like this? Why does she have to give me a choice? If we don’t do it, we both stay free: there are no informers, no captures, no consciences. How tempting it is to put it all off for another day. I am ready, prepared for today as the day of the final betrayal. I don’t know whether I could do it a second time.
        “We don’t really have a choice, Allara,” I say. “We may not have to do it today, but sooner or later we do. And you know, it might just work. We owe it to the others.”
Allara shrugs. This was her chance to escape, and she missed it. Somehow I can tell she knows it. Her blue eyes are dull. She knocks back her drink. “You’re right. Let’s go.”

        It’s been three years since Bartazan came to power. It should never have happened, of course, and there’s no shortage of people to blame. The Garganet, Ascalon, seems to be most people’s choice; and of course, if he hadn’t won the Margariad, Medina would have won the Election and not Bartazan. I confess I blamed him myself. Things are never that simple, though. Larien told me about the Election night, the mob baying outside the Elector’s Banquet, intimidating who knows how many of them into voting for Bartazan. And if I’m honest, I’m hardly blameless myself. I was the one who ran into exile after Bartazan killed Padizan, and even when Larien came to Garganet and told me how bad things were, instead of coming back to Paladria, I just hid in Taratanallos. The truth is, we’re all to blame, all of us who let Bartazan stay in power, not just the informants but the ones who look down when the Constables drag someone away, who subscribe to the grotesque fiction that things are normal in Paladria.
        It’s not as if there hasn’t been opposition to Bartazan. By the time I came back, there was a strong and capable group, ready to fight. Men like Florio and Inisse were competent and ruthless; Koopendrall and Dandret were able to supply enough money to keep us in safe houses, to buy silence – for a time at least. Allara’s poise, looks and breeding could get us access to just about anywhere, loosen any man’s tongue. But one by one Corrando’s agents have picked us off. Our group – ‘Conscience of Paladria’ – was the only one of any real capacity, and since Florio and then Inisse were taken, only two of us are left. And for us it’s do or die, with the emphasis, I rather suspect, on die.

        The Peremptor is always heavily reliant on his Captain of Constables to maintain his rule, and Bartazan is no exception. Corrando, who seamlessly shifted his allegiance from Medina to Bartazan, is ruthless, amoral, duplicitous – and most of all extremely capable. His Constables may terrorise the city, but Corrando’s best work is done in the dark, in secret. Our first assassination attempt on Bartazan, failed when Koopendrall died on the eve of the plot. Poisoned oysters? Koopendrall never ate shellfish. Whatever we planned, Corrando seemed to know about it. Nobody ever mentioned infiltrators, but it was around that time that we started to look after our own safe houses, so that no one of us could betray the whereabouts of any other. Trust is a luxury no-one can afford in Bartazan’s Paladria.

        “Carnazan!” Allara’s voice is low but insistent. “Are we going to sit here all day?”
I start from my reverie. On this day of betrayals – the final betrayal, the one which will destroy us – it’s hardly surprising I’m thinking about previous instances. But I will need to be alert today; there will be plenty of time for reflection once the Conscience of Paladria is broken.
        “We’ve a while until the inspection,” I say. “The last thing we want is Corrando’s men picking us up on the waterfront.” Nevertheless I get up. Does it really matter at what point we’re captured?
        Allara gets quickly to her feet too. She’s keen to get it over with, keen to hustle us to destruction.

        We walk up into the hills. I have been there once this morning, to light the brazier: it would ironic if the whole thing failed because I couldn’t get the fire started. I take in the sound of the sea lapping against the waterfront for what must surely be the last time: I’m not going to be coming back once this is over. I wonder whether Corrando will pick us up this early, but we hardly see anyone as we walk from the waterfront into the foothills. The few people we do see look straight ahead, minding their own business. No-one wants to be seen as informant, or to call attention to their own conduct. Guilty and innocent alike keep their own counsel. This is the Paladria Bartazan has built.
        As we lengthen our stride into the hills, the sight of the brazier smoking raises my spirits, and the folded fabric, the ropes. I forget the context, the hopelessness. Before I got involved in all this, before Bartazan perverted everything that was good in Paladria, innovation was my passion. Larien always used to laugh at how enraptured I became in my speculations. “No-one will ever float above the ground in one of your contraptions,” she’d say. “It’s delusion.”
        She was wrong, of course. I remember the day I built the prototype and sent Yarrew and Maddiran aloft in it: at best a partial success, but it flew. Larien was there of course, and Ascalon… what innocent days… how naïve I was. Larien was always wiser, but not wise enough. She took up with Drallenkoop, and Ascalon, neither of whom did her any good. She’s safest back in Taratanallos, but I miss her.
        Allara is setting the canopy up as I pause for thought. I rush over to help her; normally she’d make some ironic remark about how long it’s taken me to help her, but not today. She’s subdued, as if she knows what I’m thinking. Unlikely – we’ve never been that close. The only one she was really close to was Florio, and when he was captured the fight seemed to go out of her. Until this one last push…
        Slowly the canopy begins to inflate and the balloon takes on its full rotundity. Only the two guide ropes are holding it on the ground. I check the cross-bow next to me; it’s small and antiquated, some shoddy cast-off I picked up in Taratanallos, but it’s primed and ready. I’m a good enough shot, and it’s a big enough target. That part, at least, will go right…
        I shake my head; I can’t believe I’m thinking like this. Of course it won’t go right: Corrando’s men will be on the scene long before there’s any danger of the shot being fired. That’s the whole point of him having informants.

        Perched on the hillside we have a perfect view of Urmalest, Bartazan’s private barracks and now, of course, the headquarters of Corrando’s secret police. Corrando’s offices are blocked from our view by the adjacent storehouse – which of course is the idea. I remember when I had the idea, when I still thought we could change things, and that we weren’t just acting out some impotent fantasy. It was just before Inisse was captured – less than two weeks ago, if you can believe that.

        “We’re going about it all wrong,” I said to Inisse, as we sat on this self-same hillside, away from eavesdroppers and informers. “Our whole strategy has been based around killing Bartazan.”
        Allara lounged on her blanket, her blonde hair blowing across her face. She looked across at me. “That’s the whole point of the conspiracy,” she said. “What else are we going to do? Sing songs and wave placards?”
        Inisse scratched his beard. “Allara has a point. What else can we do but kill Bartazan? He’s not going to stop voluntarily, and he’s already ‘postponed’ the next Election.”
        I sighed. “The fact is, Bartazan is so well protected that we can’t get near him. We’ve tried to stab him, we’ve tried to poison him, we’ve even tried to sink his galley. Every attempt has either been thwarted on the day, or someone’s been captured before we’ve even made the attempt.”
        “So we just give up and go home?” said Allara with some scorn.
        “No indeed. Let me ask you this: how does Bartazan maintain his power? Did he come and arrest Florio in his bed? Does he quell the demonstrations himself?”
        “Of course not. He has people to get their hands dirty for him.”
        “Exactly!” I exclaimed. “And one person in particular.”
        “Corrando,” said Inisse quietly. “Get Corrando, and Bartazan loses his right hand.”
        I looked up into the cool blue sky and smile. “Just so. And here’s how we’re going to do it.”
        Allara sat straight up on her blanket. Whatever her faults as a revolutionary – and these were significant – no-one could fault her posture. Inisse too was trim and alert. He may not have had a personal grudge against Corrando as he did against Bartazan, but he was no fool.
        “Look down into the Urmalest,” I said. “You can almost see Corrando’s offices from here.”
        “So?” said Allara. “You can scarcely expect to get inside the barracks. He’s safer there than just about anywhere else.”
        “Wrong!” I cried, my enthusiasm carrying me forward. “You’ve seen the lighter-than-air inflatables I’ve been working with. We can use one of those.”
        Inisse laughed aloud, his normally cool eyes alive. “So we fly over the wall, alight and strike Corrando down. Not your most practical idea, Carnazan.”
        “Of course not,” I said. For all Inisse’s reliability, he is not a creative thinker.                

“What’s in the storehouse next to Corrando’s offices?”
        “Fireworks,” interjects Allara. “Where would Bartazan’s regime be without ceremonials?”
        “What would happen, then, if an inflatable with a burning brazier came down among the fireworks?”
        Allara gasped. Inisse said: “Bang.”
        “Bang! Bang! Bang!” I finished. “The whole storehouse will go up, and most of Urmalest with it. Goodbye, Captain Corrando – and any other Constables who happen to be around. Bang! Bang! Bang!”
        “How does the inflatable land on the fireworks?” asked Allara, always one with an eye for detail.
        I raised an imaginary cross-bow to the sky. “Puncture the skin: the inflatable drops. If we do it on the morning of their monthly stock-take, the canopy will be folded back, and the fireworks will be exposed.”
        Inisse sat silently for a minute. “It might just work, you know,” he said eventually.
        Allara twirled hair around her finger. “You’re either insane or a genius. Who knows – maybe you’re both.”
        “What have we got to lose?” I said. “Florio was always our best hope of making a more conventional assassination work. With him gone, long shots are all we have left.”

        I don’t know whether I ever really believed we could pull it off. We had never enjoyed much luck, and there came a point where bad luck was more than just coincidence. I do remember that I wasn’t that surprised when I heard that Corrando’s men had come for Inisse in the night. I realised then that we were finished. There was no reason why Allara and I shouldn’t try the plan, but there was no way it was going to work. Suddenly I realised why people became informers and collaborators. It wasn’t that they supported Bartazan; it wasn’t even that their heads were turned by the silver. It was the despair, the uncertainty. The informer had control; limited control admittedly, but he could choose when and how it was going to end. How easy it is to get a message to Corrando: Allara is hiding out in the Yeast-Master’s manufactory. Go there in the night and you’ll find her. The conspiracy is over: I won’t be a fugitive any more. My price for the betrayal is that Corrando gives me the money to get back to Taratanallos. I’ll join Larien, forget that Paladria is ruled by a tyrant. I’ll put the past behind me and start a new life. How easy, how seductive. Allara will be caught sooner or later anyway; why not make myself the agency of it and at least save my own hide? Surely it’s better to live to do a little good somewhere else than for both of us to rot in the dungeons. It is easy, so easy…

        The inflatable is pulling against its guide ropes. I hold one and Allara the other. As soon as we see the squad of Constables pulling back the storehouse canopy, we start to let the ropes out. The prevailing wind, strong and predictable as ever, pushes the inflatable steadily towards the barracks. I can’t look directly at Allara; I have an urge to shout out, to tell her everything I know, everything I’m thinking – sheer lunacy. I can tell by her posture that she’s keen, alert, excited, and why wouldn’t she be? It’s all coming to a head.
        We are using the guide ropes to hold the inflatable just short of the storehouse. Constables have noticed it; the off-white fabric against the cloudy sky is an indifferent camouflage. Surely they’ll be suspicious and roll the canopy back over? The brazier might still burn through to the fireworks, but they’ll have a chance to put it out.
        Allara’s arms are taut ahead of her holding her rope in position. “Now!” she shouts.  “Now, Carnazan! Do it!”
        Corrando can’t let this happen, surely, I think, as let go of my guide-rope and raise the cross-bow. He knows this is going to happen, he’s not going to let us blow his barracks up with him in them. He’s the survivor type, not a martyr.
        My arms are rock steady as I hold the cross-bow aimed. I have a sudden rush of adrenalin: what if there’s been a mistake, a breakdown in communication? What if, for once, Corrando is not all-knowing? Forget the betrayal, we can do this!
        I pull the trigger back. Shcwish! The bolt flies high. Phhhthhh! Air gushes from the inflatable, the pregnant roundness sags. The corpse of the inflatable plummets, dragged by the weight of the glowing brazier – down, down, straight down into the open storehouse!
My jaw hanging, I wait for the explosion. Can we really have done this?
        Behind me, I hear a noise, footsteps coming over the brow of the hill. I turn round, and look into the ironic smiling face of Corrando, flanked by several Constables, sinister in their four-cornered hats. My shoulders sag and the crossbow drops gently from my hands to the turf.
        Corrando beckons to his guards. “Bind him!” Allara looks down at her feet.
        “Forgive me a little taste for the theatrical,” said Corrando in a conversational tone. “I could have picked you up last night, but this was rather more amusing – and of course it raises the morale of my troops, never a negligible concern.”
        I say nothing. What is there to say?
        “You’ll have plenty have time to reflect on where you went wrong,” he said. “I commend your ingenuity. Your plan might even have worked if I hadn’t had some – intelligence – which prompted me to move our store of fireworks somewhere a little less accessible. Rather sloppy of me not to have thought of it before. Ah well, you live and learn.”
        My arms bound, the guards jerk me towards a waiting rattlejack. Allara manages to look at me at last. “I’m sorry, Carnazan,” she says. “For what it’s worth, I really am sorry.”
        I understand, I want to say. I’ve known all along, and I just wanted it to be over. It could as easily have been me betraying you. But when it comes to it, I can’t say it. The forgiveness I’ve been preparing sticks in my throat. Betrayal is betrayal, however you dress it up. I’ve stayed me, Allara, I think, and you haven’t. You’ve got nothing. I keep my thoughts to myself, including my suspicion that whatever Corrando has promised her, he won’t deliver.
        So I say nothing as they haul me aboard the rattlejack to take me somewhere cold and dark. And I realise that for the first time since I returned to Paladria, I’m not even afraid. I’m not afraid at all.


  
THE END


 


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