(Ed. Note: this story is a sequel to ”The Many Smalldarks, Part 1”.)
Tinderbox's office was located atop a flight of stairs, one of several in the Administrative Cavern, numerous trolls passing up and down and around them all on one errand or another. A natural stone wall was to its left. A wooden guardrail had recently been added to the exposed right side. Chiseled into the freshly hewn stone door was an elaborately relieved heraldic icon: a feather quill crossed over a rolled up scroll, these inside a circle composed of braided lines. The overall representation being that of the union between knowledge of the past, and discoveries of the future yet to be written down. It was the symbol of the House of Scholars; the fourth and final social caste to be formally established in Underhaven. At the foot of the stair, Tapestry ran a nervous hand through the back of his deep brown mane, then straightened his back and sucked in a deep breath. With the willpower of a practiced soldier, he put on a mask of fearlessness, and mounted the stair.
In many ways, Tinderbox and Tapestry were strangers. More compatriots than family, they had been torn apart not long after his birth by feudal barbarism, then brought together much later in the name of overcoming it. Truth be told, Tapestry felt closer kinship to Cudgel, the head of another House, the House of Tactics and Arms. Tapestry had fought alongside him on the front lines, putting to ironic use the martial training that had been drilled into them both by the masters of Deepwater Stronghold. Coming up on a year into the rebuilding now, there had been many an awkward silence between mother and son.
The office itself appeared to be reclaimed from the private quarters of a warlord's favored troop leader, for all the Palace crystals embedded in the stalactites, acting as a 'natural' light source. Tinderbox was clothed as always with a thick robe, this one silver and purple. The desk she sat at was equally draped, festooned with a woven cover that traveled clear over the whole front side. It bore the House symbol, embellished with brighter outlines and additional flair in the corners, indicating her rank within it. The young troll bowed his beardless head. “Here as requested. And to offer my congratulations upon your ascendancy, Second Chair.” His voice strained through a not entirely comfortable smile.
“Appreciated," she said with a nod. It was a warmer-than-neutral word which was becoming customary between them. "Congratulations to you as well. Your decision to join the House of Scholars affords us a unique opportunity. I have a special project in mind for you." From the sorted stacks upon her desk, Tinderbox pushed forward a leather satchel.
"Appreciated." Whatever this new plan was, perhaps it would afford Tapestry more chances to get to know the one who bore him? She had worked so hard to build the faction up from the ground floor, and was laboring still, every waking moment it seemed. When they did talk, it was usually about the work. Even before knowing the details, the young troll resolved that he would see out the Second Chair's plans. He took the package in hand.
"Good. For my end of it, our House started in a particular cavern. The old knowledge tossed aside there was far more important that anyone realized at the time. There's more still to put back together, a piece at a time. Hints of secrets yet to be re-discovered. I can’t keep atop it all myself. I have a whole House to help Codex run now." Codex had been the spymaster of the revolution, the troll who recruited Tinderbox into it. He too had had notions about the preservation of knowledge which lead towards the creation of the House. "Now I have the authority to give the cavern over to you, to build up and strengthen. I want you to make it a fortress of information."
"I was under the impression that the Conclave had selected a site for a public archive?"
"Yes, yes. But before something can be archived, it must be put in proper context. Some items have yet to be fully reconstructed. Some may never be, but we may still find references to their meaning in other texts. Then there are the things the Conclave may not want going public at all. And facts we may wish to barter to the other Houses."
"'That one day we will see again the sights we lost to the blood-red mists clouding our eyes.' That's from a scroll of poems I found torn up to line a box of axeheads." The lad maintained his friendships among comrades who had joined Tactics and Arms, and with that, access to many of the caches it had claimed. "It will be a fair bit of work. But more than worth it in the end."
"Yes, yes, it will. And I expect we will working closely together on this." The protective edge around her voiced softened. "Hoping to, really."
A slight smile eased through the lad's facade. "I hope so too." Flipping through the parchments, Tapestry spotted a familiar name. Not one he cared to see. "That Preserver is still down there?" Dealing with the little bother was an easy enough task to delegate. "Vork — excuse me, Paddock — is the best one to deal with it, I suppose. I'll get ahold of him and--"
His leader waved off the suggestion. "No. He never sees it again. Went and got himself sorted into Provisions, didn't he? Slipknot tells me she added him to the livestock project. Catching voles and the like. Breeding meat the point-ears can't steal away from us, or some such." She rested her chin on folded hands. "The insect has to stay in House. It and anything else of import or novelty we've got — or can get — our hands on. We make ourselves indispensable, do you hear? Every fact, every song, every art piece, ours to guard and maintain and dole out when called upon. We must secure a future wherein the House of Scholars is an equal part in the equation of troll life, not a hanger-on that must constantly prove its value."
Tapestry looked up from the folder, slender eyebrows askew. "I was under the impression the Houses were fully equal. The revised charter makes that quite clear."
"Officially, yes. Unofficially, more complicated. From its beginnings this House has been playing catch-up to the other three." Its genesis came after the 'three pillars' started consolidating power, after all. "Tactics had the real head start, and they've used it too. More members, more resources. They locked down one of the Writhing Cylinders the day peace was won. Tinkers and Provisions are haggling over who gets to keep the other one right now. And those are just the crown jewels amid the trove that never made it down into our cavern. Things we should be studying! Reclaiming our history from! It ends here! We keep what we have and we reach for more. Make them need us as much as we need them." She was looking away to the side now, as though contemplating various unpleasantries.
Tapestry didn’t see so much of a problem as his mother did. "It only makes sense that Tactics should enjoy a greater share of the spoils. The revolution sprang from many of their members. And many of the honored dead who fell during the campaign might have joined that very House if they'd lived to see it founded."
His elder let a sour breath out of her nose, her voice tightening. "And the rest of us are to spend eternity beholden to them? Always one step beneath while they prattle on about standing on an even floor? Shall they always demand an extra share of any spoils?"
His silver eyes narrowed. "You've accused me before of being blind to politics. I’m not so fond of stewing in it, certainly. But really, accusing our fellow revolutionaries of such hypocrisy is too much! You are just being paranoid—"
Tinderbox shot out of her seat like a spoor flume, face flushed olive with blood, her eyes violent bursts of violet-blue. "I did not spend two hundred years of my life shaking my teats for the warlords, being passed around for the use of their minions, risking my neck snatching secrets from under their noses, just to spend the rest of it under the thumb of even more kill-happy thugs!"
The outburst was as unreasoned as it was unexpected. Tapestry stepped back, straightened his spine. "I was raised for battle, and I did fight. You know that. Right on the front lines of the revolution. I was there, with Cudgel, when the final warlord breathed his last." A scarred hand moved up to hold his shuddering heart. "Am I just another thug in your eyes? Is that the truth I joined your House to learn?"
The inexperienced matriarch was already back in her seat, slumped over the desk. Trembling. "No, no, no. I'm sorry. I... I..." Tears raced down her cheeks as her head folded atop one arm, but she would not cry. "Trust is... difficult." Tapestry came around the side of the table. He tentatively placed a hand on the table, near to the one she had left outward and limp. She grasped it, clutched it tight. "You are the only bright light to come out of that darkness."
The lad's other hand wrapped around her shoulder. A too-familiar grip closed around his throat. "I... I don't know what to say." The former rebel chose to fight the grip. Fear of widening this gulf was just another yoke to tear off. "No, wait, I do know what to say! Did I ever tell you why I chose my new name?"
Her face burying itself deeper into the sleeves of her robe, the female weakly shook her hooded head.
"I had a reason behind it. Hope. When Cudgel brought me in, I believed then that I was working to weave a new life for our people. I want to weave one with you as well. That is why I joined the House you built." Slowly, he placed his open hand onto her shoulder and found it was not rejected. "We will know each other better, Mother."
Tinderbox looked up to him. "I would very much like that, son."
(This story is continued in "The Many Smalldarks (Part 2)".)