CHAPTER SIXTEEN

I was awake first, stirred by a scuffling sound below. Someone was setting up the ladder to get into the loft.

In a moment I'd turned and risen to a crouch, hands balled into fists. The sound of wood creaking hit my ears, and I turned to pat Gaula on the arm. It was only as he stirred and blinked his pink eyes at me that I thought it might just be the old couple. But they'd never disturbed us before, or at least never come up this far. "Gaula?" I asked.

He rose smoothly, then listened for a moment. I watched him, tensed and ready to spring as fingers scrabbled on the bottom of the trapdoor. It opened a crack. That was when he tapped me twice on the arm and slid his nakedness back under the covers. I let out a sigh. It was old Gelyas, and I helped him lift the trapdoor. As I looked at him, dressed in a smooth doublet of purple velvet, I wondered how I must look to him. I'd slept in my clothes for three days running, and they'd become so creased that they seemed to have aged a year.

"Greetings, initiate of the Reapers," he said, his voice thin and fragile. There was a slight tremble in his limbs, and I helped him up into the loft just in case he lost his balance.

I forced a smile, mostly to hide the fact I'd been about to pounce on him. "Greetings, sir Gelyas. I've not had a chance to thank you for your aid."

"Nor I to properly welcome you to me home. In truth I'm only here for that, the air in this loft's terrible for my breathing. But still, duties are duties, and it's the place of the old to follow them. I welcome you, and your companions, to my home. I would ask you not to feel worried, but I suppose that is unlikely to help much, as you must be in some kind of trouble if you need to rely on us and not your own Guild in the city," he said, then took a deep, pleghmy breath. "Might I ask what it is that brought you here? I don't believe I was told."

"You'd be wrong there, old Gelyas," Marcus said as he sat up and shrugged off his covers. "I told you on the day we arrived. We're on secret business, not allowed contact with the other Guilds at any point. Brianna, could you light the lamp?"

"Harsh, harsh," he said, and tutted while I did as Marcus asked, and borrowed Gelyas' candle to do it. "When I was young, there was a Reaper by name of Yanim, but he became known on the streets as the hangman because of the way he dealt with his targets. He operated away from the Reapers a lot of the time, though I can't for the life of me remember why. I'm afraid I've reached that age where details fade. My mind's," he made a vague, waving motion with his hand, "air and dust, most of the time. Just air and dust. It really is a bother. Nevermind. Oh, but I owe you Reapers a debt, and this seems a handy time to thank you for it. There was this youth one time, you see, a brute he was, never knew his name, he vandalized my property, almost scared my wife right into Spathi's arms! Would have clubbed him with my stick if I could get ahold of him, but he ran off. The Guards, they never found him, so I spoke to the Guildmaster here," he nodded. "Ah, yes, it reminds me why we have Reapers. The Hangman got him, is what I always say, even though I'm sure the original Hangman's long dead."

I smiled, and slowly urged him back to the ladder. If the air up here was truly bad for his lungs, it was undoubtedly better that he leave the loft. Marcus took over and followed the old man down there to speak further, while Kagorr was roused by Gaula and sullenly began to climb downstairs to arrange breakfast. I turned and saw Gaula roll free of his covers and begin to dress. And the first thing he put on was the red silk wraps that pinned his throwing blades to his forearms and calves, with a few others tied to his chest. I'd only ever seen this once before, in the Fireash wood before the Cyldon attacked us, and I hadn't then noticed the small pads woven into the silk, clearly there to keep his skin safe from the razor edges of the hiltless steel weapons.

"Why do you do that?" I asked, and lay down on my bedding to watch.

He turned his head toward me, but for once I saw a sad, wistful look on his face rather than his usual happiness. "As a reminder, I suppose. A reminder of where I came from."

"Thorassia?"

"Yes, more specifically, thraskor."

I'd heard that word before. He and Nirrti had said it to each other just before parting ways. But I didn't know what the word really meant. "I'm not familiar. Are they like the Guards?"

Gaula laughed softly. "Yes, and no. The thraskor are what you'd think of as an army, what we think of as our protectors. Both Nirrti and I were in the thraskor, though if we were there together I never saw her. We lived out in the wilds, about a days' trek away from Chadar's blessed slope and down into an underground cove that's kept and secured by us, a little outpost, if you like, where Chadar's grace is extended. But while we're in the thraskor, we're never allowed to go home," he said, and all traces of joy left his face.

I pushed myself up on my arm and frowned. "What? I thought you said you had to go home? You told me once,"

"I know what I said, and it's... not far from true. But it's not right, either. The truth is, Brianna, that what we need is Chadar's touch, we need Her darkness, Her blessed darkness. In Thodar, that darkness thrives, so we do not need to return to the mountain, not physically at least. But it hurt to be away, it truly did. You can't imagine what it's like. As strong as I feel about things, at times, I've never though anything bad about my home. I've never stopped longing for it. And indeed, I've been back before. Briefly."

"Why only briefly?" I sat up straight, now, for I could sense there was more to this than one of his mood swings. I'd scratched a sore point. "And why aren't you allowed to go home? That doesn't make any sense to me. From what you've said in the past, you barely have any rules at all back there!"

He nodded. "And its true. But those few rules we do have, are ironclad. As for why we lived apart," he bowed his head, and trailed off into silence that I had no intention of disturbing. "It is a philosophical choice, I think," Gaula replied, and then his brow furrowed deeply, the trace of a scowl appeared around his mouth. "I do not speak often of our 'cousins'," he said, with just a trace of a snarl, "but in the thraskor lies one of the similarities and differences at once. When my ancestors left them, the Drakir then believed that those being defended should not need to know of battles that they have no participation in. Have you never noticed that there is no common names for anything to do with the Drakir?" I shrugged. In truth I'd never thought about it. "That's because commonly their defenders don't exist. Or didn't. Who knows what they believe now? It's been over a thousand years since we shed them.

"Anyway," he said, and a saw a pale flush on his cheeks, the stirring of feeling in his eyes, "the point of these bad memories is that we Thorassians also believe that those who defend Chadar should live separately. You must understand," he said with a wry smile, "I was even younger then than I am now, and I'd never say that I am wise today, but it was explained to me that if we lived in Chadar, it could breed at once resentment and envy," he smiled strangely, and then with a slithering hiss, drew one of his ivory knives and held it up before us. The lantern light lit up the ugly wound he had cut in himself back in the guildhouse. "I should know. This knife, like the one born by Nirrti, was crafted by our finest weapon smiths. I have two, because I was well respected and I was once a hunter before I joined the thraskor. My throwing blades were also crafted by them, in the majority. It was in the thraskor that I learnt what it meant to be an assassin, though ironically I never took a single life until long after I left my homeland. They gave me... many things."

His voice almost broke when he said that. I wasn't wholly sure I wanted to press on, but at the same time I was curious, and a little ashamed. I'd called Gaula my friend now for at least five years. Yet in all that time, I'd never even come close to finding out about this. Now I began to wonder if in the past he'd hit it from me, or I'd simply not thought to ask. "You sound like you miss them," I said. "Why did you leave?"

Gaula sniffed, and a sudden, pained smile crossed his features, the kind that said he'd rather seem to laugh than cry. "I did not," he said. "I was expelled."

For a time, I couldn't speak. I thought to lie back down, but then I edged closer and put my arms around him. He sighed, and cried silently. And pulled me against him. My head ended up nestled to his neck, and I looked down at his smooth, firm chest, saw the blades tied there, angled into their pads. But they were flat against his flesh down his arms, pinned by the strips of blood red silk. He kissed my forehead, but I ducked away from his lips when they sought mine. His warmth was pressing enough, and I could quite distinctly feel his member against my leg. A blush rose in my cheeks, but I didn't try to break away. I could feel the shudders slowly leaving him, feel the pain subsiding. Finally, I asked him, "Why?"

To my surprise, he separated from me, and he again took up one of the ivory handled fighting knives. He held the knife up before the lantern so I could see the light playing along the blade's edge and sparkling on the point. "Because of this," he said distantly. "Because of this," he repeated, and with his free hand he stroked one of the throwing blades on his chest.

"What do you mean," I said. "Were you exiled when they gave you the Knives?"

He flinched when I mentioned exile. "Don't," he whispered. "Don't say that word. It's not that bad. But I," Gaula said hesitantly, "I like knives. I like blades. I like them too much. When I sleep I always either wrap these blades around my body, so I can feel their cool metal against my skin, or I hold one between my palms, or both. I often keep them on me during the day, as I have recently. Not always, I didn't use to, but it's been tense. They help me stay relaxed," he said, and gently stroked the flat of his knife against his cheek.

"But you sleep naked. I never saw you put them on, not once."

Gaula shrugged. "It is a practiced motion. I leave the strips inside the folds of my tunic, and then pull both on at once. There have been occasions where I have slept without them, though," he said with a suddenly bright smile, "such as when I slept with you in Caliban's chambers. But even then I could not be without my knife. I had to have one nearby, you see," he said, and I nodded. To think, at first I'd believed it was there because he'd intended to kill me. I'd never felt more ignorant, and my blush became fierce as I thought back to all of those groundless accusations I'd thought and harboured. It was probably a blessing that he didn't notice.

"The others, they were worried for me. They felt that my experiences among the thraskor had damaged me, somehow. I have to admit that it was there that I was introduced to the true beauty of the blade, so perhaps they were right. And so they expelled me. It was nothing cruel, as I have heard tell it can be from your human army, there were no shouted words or condescending sneers. My sinxin - um, I suppose you'd call them bunk mates, or something like that - all hugged and kissed me goodbye, we made love one last time," he said, and now moved and spoke with passionate animation, almost rambling, he slipped into his own tongue for a moment, and then I think he caught my blank expression and he calmed swiftly down.

"Sorry. After the goodbye, I was guided from Thodar by the head trainer, and then allowed to return to Chadar for the first time in many, many cinya."

A thought suddenly of the cut on his arm, and a thought struck me. "That cut on your arm," I said, nodding towards it. Gaula raised his arm and looked at the wound. "It is not the only one you've inflicted, is it?"

"No," Gaula said softly. "When I become very angry I tend to cut myself. The pain is a pleasant release from the torrent of my emotions. And in the cutting I can enjoy the beauty of the blood rose."

"The blood rose?" I asked. "Is that, was that, the flower on your bedside table?"

He nodded. "Yes. It is the only rose that grows in Thorassia, and it stubbornly holds it beauty within until it tastes blood. That, and the pain, help to calm me down. It is a pity I could not bring it with me," He said with a regretful sigh. "That is part of the reason I was ultimately expelled. One of my sinxi became terribly afraid for me, not understanding what I was doing, and that was the beginning of the end," he said gloomily.

"And they let you take those with you?" I asked, slightly incredulous that he would be allowed to leave bearing their weapons. Quite sensibly, most people in Inkara's only contact with weapons came when they were given weapons for training by Guards or army.

"Why not?" Gaula asked with a slight frown. "These weapons are tokens of respect, crafted upon the best of our forges. They were made on the Matriarch's request," he said. "They're uncommon, special. No Thorassian would ever bear them even if they were taken from me. They are utterly, intrinsically mine. We can feel the spirit in them, the dark that's infused in steel and hilt," he sighed. "You don't understand, do you?" I shook my head sadly. He looked so very hurt when I did that. "Humans never do. I was shocked the first time somebody tried to steal them from me. Then I killed the person in question," he said, and his voice dropped back to a whisper. "And that was the first person I ever killed. That was what eventually led me to be a Reaper. Originally," he said, and broke into a laugh. "I intended to be a dancer."

"I had no idea."

"And that is how it should have been, for we never talked of it, and I've only ever spoken of this with Marcus," he said, sighed deeply, and firmly put the knife down on the floor. "Khot Chadar goki, rex Chadar perrisot," he muttered, musing.

"What's that mean?"

"'From Chadar we come, to Chadar we return'," he said. "The very last words spoken to anyone who leaves the homeland. It's sort of like your 'good luck'. We even say it to exiles. Anyway, that is my story, as uninspiring as it is. Despite my expulsion from the thraskor I could never put down the blades, and in the end it seems I found something useful to do with them. After all, where do my people belong, save in the darkness and with the things that prowl there?"

Darkness. My mind turned toward the sewers again. Gaula could see clearly in the dark. My plan clicked inside my head. I began to see the faded corners of it, to be aware of the details. The sewers. We could use the sewers to get out. But then, just as it seemed my thoughts were in order, Gaula wrecked it all with a simple comment.

"So, how is your rune?" I froze. A wave of panic swelled in my chest, but he didn't give me time to speak. "No, it's fine, really. You are not the first I've known."

"Gaula?" I asked hesitantly, "how do you know that this is a rune?" I asked, pointing at the scar on my face.

He shrugged his slim shoulders and moved back over to his bedclothes, and finally began to pull on his trousers and shirt. "Familiarity, mostly. That looks like no scar I've ever seen on a Human, not even a fresh one. The flesh is the wrong colour, for one thing. Unless your blood's made of silver? Didn't think so."

"What's blood got to do with scars?"

"Everything. Nothing. I'm not sure. I think Caliban mentioned it once. Or maybe he didn't."

I gripped him by the elbow as he pushed his head out of the top of his shirt, and he regarded me with a smile. "Did you know from the beginning, from when I showed it to you back at the Guildhouse?" I pressed, and he nodded. I sat back slightly, shoulders slumped and mouth agape. "Why," I began, but the words lost form after that, until I managed to let out a yell, "why didn't you tell me?" Months. Months I'd been left alone with this! Spathi's grace... I'd kept this secret from everybody, in my thoughts and in my heart I'd hidden it. Only Jared had known. Or so I thought. Had everybody known? Was it obvious to everybody who looked at it? I pulled away when he reached for my hands.

He frowned. "Sorry. Brianna, can't you guess? My place as your dhonna does not allow me to tell you such things. You must speak to me about it. I was wondering if you ever would, I wanted you to so badly, but you never said a thing. I thought you were used to it. I shouldn't have said anything, should I? I've made you uncomfortable."

"Not this again!" I exclaimed, unable to keep a frustrated edge out of my voice. "I thought I told you that I am not going through a shakso taris? I thought I'd made it clear. Gaula, Gods above, Gaula... I've needed advice. Oh, you," I trailed off into incoherence, in thought and in word. I felt dizzy, and this time I didn't stop him as he took me and laid me down, stroked my brow.

"You made it clear that you do not think you are, yes. I thought I had made it clear that you are wrong in that belief," he replied warmly, kindly. "Perhaps we are both refusing to learn the lessons the other wishes to teach."

"Gaula, this couldn't possibly be any more different. The shakso taris is, is something utterly crucial to you, to your people. It is vital to who you are, or at least that's what you said," I added, hoping I had not misinterpreted him. Thankfully, he nodded firmly. "This isn't vital to who I am, it isn't vital to my people. It isn't vital to anyone. It is, well, I'm not sure what it is. I don't have a catch-all statement as to what runes are or what they mean to me or to anyone. I'm beginning to realise I don't know a thing about them," I said with a heavy shake of my head. "If you know anything..."

Gaula leant forward and took my hand in his, holding it between us. "Brianna, do you think that we know anything about the shakso taris when it begins? When I went through mine, I did it alone," he said, and he swallowed heavily. "And when I came out of it, I was furious, I wanted to know why I had not been prepared for it, why nobody had told me what it meant, what would happen, but the fact is that nobody can prepare us for it. It is different for every one of us, in its effect upon us, how we react to it, how it changes us."

"The shakso taris annihilates everything we are told about it the moment it begins, because no words can describe the things we go through on that first time. All preparation, all thought, all confidence, dies in an instant. We rely upon our dhonnai, usually," he said sadly, "to help guide us through it, to answer our questions, and hold our hands when we need it," he said, and squeezed my hand. "So how is it really different to what you are going through? You now find that everything you were told is wrong, your confidence has fallen down a deep, dark pit, and you find that you want answers. You want somebody to tell you what is happening to you. So how, really, is your shakso taris different to mine?"

"Mine only happens once," I said flatly, "and might I point out you still haven't answered my question. Why didn't you tell me when you knew I was worried, and scared, and wanted answers? Why did you hold that back from me?"

"I told you," Gaula laughed, "I am your dhonna, I cannot start telling you what is happening. How am I supposed to know?" He asked incredulously. "Perhaps I was in error for making it clearer what exactly I meant when I said you made me your dhonna, perhaps I should have told you exactly what that meant, but I assure you I have held nothing back. Had you asked at any point I would gladly have told you anything I could."

"Well, then," I began, and at that moment the panel was moved back from the entrance, and I heard Marcus and Kagorr bickering below. "Oh, by Spathi's throne, do men practice their bad timing, or is it instinct?"

"As I currently am one, I will say it is instinct," Gaula said in a sagely manner.

"Is there a problem?" Marcus asked as he climbed into the loft. "Why are you blushing? Gaula, have you been talking about sex again? And what were you yelling about?"

I bit my lip. Everything seemed different, just for a moment, but in truth it hadn't changed at all. We were still stuck here. That was the thing that mattered. I wanted to talk about my rune, to pry every bit of informatin out of Gaula's head. But somehow, the sight of Marcus clarified me. Marcus who'd only come with me on Jared's orders. Marcus who'd led us as truly as he could and now had no ideas. Marcus who needed some inspiration.

"I have an idea." I said, and decided that I'd just say it. Anything to cover up the reason for my blush, to avoid having to answer why I'd yelled. I couldn't say the truth, not yet. Maybe Gaula knew runebearers, but Marcus might not have, and Kagorr didn't, and people hated runebearers. I felt like I was going to cry. The tears were forming, my vision was misting. "I think I know how to get us out of the city," I forced out.

An instant silence fell over the loft. I had a reprieve to blink and brush away the tears before swiftly sitting up.

Marcus nodded at me. "Alright," he said, "let's hear it. Over breakfast."