Stiaan reacted with indignant shock when the point of Kastor's blade scored a scarlet line across his chest. He made an instinctive effort to use magic, barking the words of a spell. Kastor cut him again. For a moment it looked like the white Mara would just stand there and let himself be sliced to pieces, but as Kastor whirled his swords theatrically overhead, Stiaan finally backed up.
He said something in that ancient language, which caused the two Mara by the wall to stiffen and glance around. One took up a chair; the other launched himself at Kastor barehanded.
Kastor turned to meet this threat, but Stiaan found that he wasn't freed from danger. Tanner was there to take up the slack, forcing him back another step. Her blade did more than cut him. It seared where it struck, releasing a thread of blood-steam from the cauterized wound it made. Stiaan bellowed outrage. He took the silver belt from his waist and swung it like a whip, trying to entangle Tanner's sword.
It wasn't a bad play, Kastor had to admit. He was keeping half an eye on Tanner's fight, ready to poke Stiaan back on track if he veered too much. His own opponents were too wary to attack; their master had innoculated them too well with his own selfishness, and they were loathe to commit. Kastor could spare the attention to watch Tanner flick her blade out of the way of the belt, once, twice, and on the third try Stiaan caught her on the cheek with the clasp, marking her. She didn't seem to notice. She kept pressing him back and back.
The Mara with the chair finally found his courage. He gave a wild yell and rushed. Belatedly, his companion realized what was going on and joined the charge. Kastor left Tanner to fight on her own for the moment. He leapt over the swinging chair, flicking one sword at the chair-wielder's wrist, snapping the other down in a blow that should have buried itself in his opponent's brains. He was counting on the fact that Mara were far tougher than humans, hoping not to do too much harm; it wasn't their fault Stiaan had made them.
Kastor had judged the blow right. He split the Mara's scalp, but not his skull. The creature had apparently never seen his own blood before -- he howled and fled. A few slices on the other's arms sent him yelping after. They weren't guards after all, just glorified footmen.
He turned back to Stiaan and Tanner just in time to see Stiaan's belt hit Tanner in the side of the head with a solid clank. She staggered, eyes unfocused; he'd stunned her. The Mara whirled the belt over his head to finish her off, but it was a feint -- as she raised her sword half-blindly to fend him off, he struck her wrist instead. There was a sickening crunch as the thick links broke her arm.
Kastor, leaping to her rescue, changed tactics mid-spring, crossing his blades to force a block. It was lucky that he did, for in that moment Stiaan had Tanner's sword up to skewer Kastor, and it nearly worked. As it was, the tip of the blade burned through the top of Kastor's ear before he could thrust it away. Stiaan danced back, Dawnstar in one hand and the silver belt whirling in the other, face ruined by a snarl. He moved like smoke, held his weapons like an expert. Kastor's heart sank.
"Wonderful," Kastor said quietly. "Mikah, I thought you said he couldn't fight worth a damn."
"That was years ago. Sorry, love. Look out!"
This shouted warning was belated, and unnecessary. Kastor had seen the movement of the belt before it began, guessed its trajectory by the turn of Stiaan's elbow. By the time Mikah shouted, he'd already worked out the feint and turned it to his use, engaging Stiaan's slow sword instead of dodging it, forcing it up to foul the belt's path. All this happened far below the level of thought, instantly, body responding to something faster than the mind. It should have worked.
Instead, the belt backcurved like a live snake and sliced him across the forehead, spilling blood into his eyes.
How the hell did he do that? Kastor thought, and then it was the berserker who drew his next breath. The feaheledd took him. He lost sight of the plan, lost any concern for his stunned and broken-armed companion except as an obstacle on the field, lost everything but the need to destroy the thing that had drawn his blood.
Tanner's voice, behind and to the right, didn't mean anything: "Shit, Mikah, he's gone off! I can't get in there!"
"Have faith, my soldier. Kastor can handle this."
And he was. He was beating back the pale Mara step by step, backing him across his circles. The central circle was remembered as a potential threat, something which could be used, so he pushed Stiaan in that direction. It wasn't without cost; the silver plates of the belt punched him several times, setting his ears ringing, and Dawnstar's point ripped smoking cuts on his shoulder and on one leg just above the knee. Kastor had scored as well, and Stiaan's white silk was ruined with spills of crimson. He pushed Stiaan inch by inch across the symbols in the floor. They sent tingles through him as he crossed them. Stiaan tried to turn, tried to maneuver aside -- he didn't want to be inside the circle, just on principle -- but Kastor wouldn't let him. Something that remained clear in Kastor's snarling mind was the knowlege that if he could pin Stiaan in the circle, the circle would finish the job of obliterating him.
Mikah's voice was calling encouragement, endearments. "That's right, Kastor, well done, my joy, you're done, your work is finished. Stop now, beloved, don't kill him, that's not the plan. Stop now."
A trickle of meaning intruded through the madness. My love; and this is my love's enemy. So why tell me to stop? Unwilling, he remembered more. For the sake of this enemy, Mikah would allow himself to be taken away. Away from Kastor to return no more. Because of this creature. And if this enemy were dead, it wouldn't have to happen.
There was something wrong with the thought, but his body was acting on it nevertheless, beating down Stiaan's weapons with fury-fueled blows, grinding his teeth together. He wanted Stiaan dead, wanted it so badly --
"You're finished now, love, that's enough." Mikah's voice was soothing. "You understand, I know you do. If you kill him now, you'll be sorry about it later. You know that, my bittersweet. Let him be. Come out of the circle."
Something important there. Something he had to remember. Some element in this fight he was missing. While Kastor tried to get his mind to work properly, his fury was beating Stiaan to his knees. Dawnstar clattered to the floor, and Kastor kicked it away. It spun, singing, out of the circle.
The circle. Mikah wanted Stiaan inside the circle and Kastor outside it. Kastor didn't have to make his brain work, make any decisions, because the decisions were already made. He'd decided to trust Mikah, that was what he'd been forgetting. One clear thought intruded on the fog: he could keep Mikah only by destroying Mikah's plans, and hopes, and all trust between them -- that was the price of killing Stiaan.
The madness faded like a fever, leaving him weak and trembling, mouth full of the taste of iron. He scrambled backward until a prickling passing up through his feet told him he'd crossed the line of runed silver inlaid in the floor.
The world rocked. Stiaan, freed of Kastor's attentions, hurled himself toward the sword Kastor had kicked away, but his leap fell short; he was pulled back like a fly caught in glue. His anger faded to fear as he realized his predicament. Magda's voice was droning with the words of a spell; had been doing so all along, Kastor realized as the pain of his wounds began to intrude.
Lucien, weary but unhurt, was rushing to help Tanner, who was examining her broken arm with detatched curiosity. Magda stood outside the boundary of the spell-circles, speaking thaumaturgical phrases with thoughtful precision. Mikah was beside her, one hand on her shoulder. The flow of power from him into her was actually visible to the eye, a blurring of the point of contact, as if the air were writhing.
"Brother?" Stiaan knelt in the center of the circle, anger guttering like a dying flame. "Why? You said you loved me. Why do you want to hurt me like this?"
Mikah shook his head. "I'm helping you. You'll understand later."
Stiaan let out a cough of incredulous laughter. "Helping? It hurts! It hurts so much -- you're going to kill me. You don't understand the spell. You can't. It will crush me, tear me apart. You're doing it wrong. I see what you're trying to do, but you're not doing it right. You're trying to get my crown away from me, aren't you? But the way you're doing it, you're going to tear out my soul. Brother, please --" He held out hands that dripped blood.
Mikah refused to look away. It cost him; as he spoke, tears beaded on his eyelashes, then flowed. But his voice was steady. "If it killed you, that would be better than if you lived to do more harm. But it won't kill you. I've studied this for many years."
"What? Years? You mean you've been planning this -- plotting, cold-blooded, to betray me? You have, haven't you? I see it now. The black book and the blue book -- I sent agents to obtain them, but my agents vanished. I thought perhaps, someday, some mortal mage would attempt to duplicate the process, and I thought -- well, more power to him, though I'd prefer the new Mara to be under my hand, the more the merrier. But it was you. What happened to the books? Did you destroy them?"
"The black book, I destroyed. The blue book is in the convent library at Corathy, protected by the goddess Kaleya. No one will learn this spell. There will be no more pure-blooded Mara made. No more angel-souls torn in half. You dimmed the light of heaven every time you made yourself a new friend."
"Friend!" Stiaan spat. His piteous look had changed to fury in an instant. "They're tools! Friend -- what do you take me for? I've learned my lessons well, brother. I know better than to rely on the loyalty of others. Even my own brother abandoned me. Lost in your forgettings, your little conquests and adventures, while I watched the endless winters all alone!"
"That's the demon speaking, Stiaan. You know you could have come with me. I invited you, do you remember that? Do you remember me saying, 'Come with me, dear brother, where there's music and bright colors and people to talk to' --? But you were too busy with your project. The very interesting and involving task of destroying yourself. So I went away and yes, I plotted, cold-blooded, to betray the demon that you've made your master. To free you. I love you, Stiaan. I'm sorry it hurts."
"To hell with you!" Stiaan shrieked, hurling himself against the invisible bonds that held him. "I never loved you! It was all a lie! I was using you! From the very beginning, you were just a thing for me to play with!"
Mikah shook his head slowly. He didn't answer.
Magda's voice rose in volume, deepening. Her words seemed to shake the walls, thrummed through stone and flesh like war drums. Stiaan gave a startled cry, hands to his head. His fingers curled around the circlet of bone, scoring his brow with his fingernails -- to keep it on or tear it off, it was impossible to tell. He blurred, and as his substance smeared so did his scream, becoming an aching echo that drowned out Magda's voice for a moment.
The smear parted. Magda spoke a final word and fell silent. Stiaan lay in the left-hand circle, bleeding from a line of puckered marks across his forehead, as if the circlet had set roots in him which had been torn out by force. In the right-hand circle, the devil-trap rolled in a curve and clattered to stillness.
Mikah gave a great sigh. He dropped his hand from Magda's shoulder; the nun immediately crumpled to her knees. He went to the devil-trap, unimpeded by the circle; after a moment's hesitation, he picked it up.
"Why, brother?" Stiaan's voice was a whisper. He could barely raise himself by one arm, half-sitting and half-slumped. "My power. You've stolen my power. Were you jealous? I would have made you one too, if you'd asked."
"I'll give it back to you more powerful than before," Mikah said gently. "Just be patient a little longer. Come, my fireflies, you have one last task." He gestured, gathering his friends around Magda, who was not too exhausted to smile her pleasure at having constructed the spell correctly.
She clasped her hands. "Now we pray?"
"Now we pray," Mikah confirmed. He reached for Kastor's hand, brought it to his lips, oblivious to the blood on it. That was all the farewell he offered before bowing his head.
Aching, a little nauseated by loss of blood, worried that Stiaan might get out of the circle and attack them while their heads were bowed, and sick in his heart at what was coming, Kastor didn't think he could pray. He silently mouthed the only thing he could remember, the words of the midwinter ceremony. Midwinter, his birthday; when he'd been small, he'd thought everyone was celebrating for his sake.
By hand and hoof we call you, we your people.
By the hand that draws the bow,
Swift hoof of the fleeing prey,
With pounding heart we call you.
By the hand that holds the reins,
Swift hoof of the loyal mount,
With one accord we call you.
Father of the wild places, Horned One,
Return to us and end this dark night.
Mother of the herds, Fruitful One,
Return to us and end this dark night.
The words were easy to remember, but the belief that went with them was more difficult. He had believed himself cast out of the gods' view, with his exile. No one but the Kyri followed the Hunter and Herder; if one was not Kyri, one was not of the gods' people. Yet everyone he met insisted on calling Kastor the 'exiled Arthane,' as if he hadn't been changed at all. He might be half Mara, but clans were reckoned by the maternal line. And no one had ever heard what the gods themselves had to say about the matter of exile, had they?
He began the prayer over again.
By hand and hoof we call you, we your people.
By the hand that draws the bow --
In the darkness behind his eyes, a dream grew. It was a dream of an endless plain, golden with frost-seared grasses. The roots of the grass were buried in white. More snow was falling, softly, making a hissing sound so faint that only in total stillness could one hear it. The hissing of the snow; his own heartbeat; his breath, pluming away to join him with the air of the world. The bow solid in his hand, his legs solid under him, the earth solid under his feet. One column of being, earth to breath. When the time came to kill his prey, the arrow's flight would draw a line between his heart and the beast's, and those hearts were one thing. To excel at killing was a kind of prayer. To know when not to kill, that was also a kind of prayer. His doubt was gone; there was no room in him for it.
"I am of the people," Kastor said, quietly but with complete sureness. "The people require this. My prey is the future."
A question rolled through his mind like distant thunder. Kill or capture? It echoed: Kill or capture? Or capture?
"It is one thing," Kastor answered. "We ask for the Forge. We wish to make whole what was torn apart."
This time it was a real voice, in his ear. He knew better than to turn around and look. "Do you know what it will cost you?"
"Are you willing to pay that price?"
He considered -- not what to answer, but how to phrase it. Absolute truth was crucial here. There was no place for rhetoric or grand gestures on the Sei in winter. "He is not mine to keep or give away. I won't try to make his choices for him. I suffer the wound of his ending, that's all."
"There is no anger in you." A different voice, the other ear, this one vital but gentle. "Where did you put away your anger?"
He knew the answer to this one. "Where I put the flames when I bury the fire. I can strike sparks when I need to."
The first voice said gently, "Your path leads to a dark place, Kastor Auberlane, Hunter's Hound. Do you fear the dark?"
"Do you fear the light?"
"Does your fear rule you?"
"Do you do this thing from fear?"
"No. I do it despite my fear. We ask the Forge of you. We wish to heal what was broken."
"Is that all you ask of us?"
The snow hissed down. Kastor realized that he held, not a bow, but two swords, which glowed in this place with a black light like painful blindness. Streaks of blood twisted between his knuckles. The lull of the dream was fading.
"One thing," he said, calm broken. "May I say goodbye to him first?"
A warm hand stroked his cheek, and the scent of rain on hot stone broke through his dream of winter. He knew it was safe to turn now. He let go of the memory of his swords, filled his hands with Mikah's hands.
Mikah was smiling a little. "How many goodbyes do you need, bittersweet?" His golden eyes glowed like an autumn moon. His radiance shone not from the perfection of his face, but from the hope and sorrow there. "I can't possibly tell you all the things I want to tell you, before I go. That's what ending means."
"I know. I just want to thank you. I just came to understand what it was you promised me. What you gave me. My heart's desire: permission to love and be loved. The knowlege that love is real, that it's possible. I just want you to know that."
"I'm glad. Never lose that understanding."
"Don't mourn me. It isn't death."
"I'll remember you, though."
"And it won't hurt."
"No. Not much. A little." Kastor was able to smile slightly. "I'll be all right, Mikah. This is a good thing you're doing."
Mikah answered him with a kiss, a frail thing without passion, a greeting in reverse. He stepped back, stepped back again, his hands trailing from Kastor's, only fingertips touching, then gone.
The dream broke with a clatter. Kastor straightened with a jerk, realized he was kneeling on cold stone. The clattering sound continued: on the floor in front of him, the circlet of bone was spinning like a coin, its spin flattening, sound fading like the taste of Mikah's farewell, until it lay still.
Around him, his three companions also knelt, looking as if they too had been startled out of a dream. Three friends. Mikah was gone.
Gone. It had happened. It was over.
Kastor put his face in his hands and cried.
Hands on his shoulders, on his hair, voices soothing. Meaningless words. But his weeping itself was meaningless. It was only release, only what was necessary at an ending. The ache in his heart was the ache of a dislocated joint snapped into place, a wound already bound and healing. He shed his tears and was done. He raised his head and looked into the faces of his friends. He found sorrow and relief to match his own.
He picked up the circlet. He remembered the dream he'd had, when no one had known what form the devil-trap had taken. Now there was no such revulsion in the object. It looked more like fossil ivory than bone. A flowing pattern of fine gold wires ran through it, like water, like Mikah's hair rippled from his customary braid. Where there had been no adornment on the circlet's surface, there was now one square diamond, just a tiny chip; the same size and shape of stone that had been set in the earring he'd given Mikah as a token. So something of Kastor had gone into the Forge as well.
The circlet was warm to the touch, smooth, pleasing in the hands. It had a satisfying weight, but was not heavy. It whispered calm through his fingers, patience, mindfulness. There is always more to be understood. It was what Mikah had given himself to create: a conscience for Stiaan.
Kastor stood, went to the circle where Stiaan was still imprisoned. The Mara glared at him, hatred warring with bewilderment.
"Where's my brother?" Stiaan demanded. "What have you done to him?"
"Let him out, Luce," said Kastor.
Countermagic rippled. Stiaan levered himself upright, staggered out of the circle. He was still bleeding, though the wounds were closing. Only a few minutes had passed. He took an uncertain step toward Kastor, hands fisted.
"Where is my brother?" he repeated.
"He's here." Kastor offered the circlet. "This is his gift to you. Now he'll always be with you."
Stiaan began to reach for it; stopped. "A trick."
"No." Kastor's voice hardened. "An antidote for the evil you've created. You're the reason for this, and I'll hate you for it when I can feel anything besides missing Mikah. Take it. Stiaan, if you ever loved your brother even a little, take it and let it teach you."
Without looking away from Kastor's angry glare, Stiaan took the circlet. His eyes widened. "There's power here. More power than..." Hesitantly, he raised it, placed it on his brow. His eyes grew even rounder. For a long moment he stood frozen, hands raised, unblinking.
Then he slowly closed his eyes. "Go away, now," he said. "I won't kill you, but go. Never return."
Unspeaking, they climbed the stairs of ice and left the fortress, into the pale cold of dawn.
Kastor retraced their path for them. The fox-horses hadn't left much of a trail, but it was enough for him to track back to where they'd left their pack animals. The beasts hadn't wandered far, were huddled together near where they'd camped, chewing on some dry scrub. Still without anything to say, the four travellers sat down for a cold meal. The sun was high by that time, and provided some thin trace of spring warmth even in this wasteland. Frost began to melt where the sun touched, and then in the shadows.
Aching with weariness, Kastor huddled inside his cloak and watched the frost fade. He felt the sun heating his back. The crown of his head felt almost hot. Summer would come, even here. He felt hollow. The presence of the others abraded him. He wondered if that were something broken in him, that being with friends didn't ease the hurt. They were friends, that was important, they were important to him -- so why didn't it help to have them near?
"Have you noticed," Magda said softly, "that all your wounds have healed?"
Tanner laughed a bit. "Yeah, the fact that my arm stopped being broken did sort of catch my attention."
"It happened when we were in the Forge."
"What did you see?" Lucien asked. "I saw a garden. A beautiful garden. I saw Mikah carrying the crown into a fountain."
"I saw something similar, but with a lake," Magda said. "Someone asked me if I agreed to this."
Tanner cleared her throat. "Kastor."
They looked to him. He dragged himself out of his reverie to face them. "Yes."
"What did you see?"
"I saw him leaving." He was going to stop there, thought he didn't have anything else to say, but something burst out of him in a startled voice: "Heart's desire. He kept his promise. To all of us."
Magda looked thoughtful. "Perhaps he did, at that. How can we know? It's always such a simple thing, in legends. A kingdom, a marriage, an affliction healed."
"An affliction...?" Tanner gasped. "Oh gods. I think --" Her hand went to her middle, scratched at her shirt, pulled it up. She stared at her flat, muscle-ridged stomach as if she'd never seen her navel before. "Oh gods. The Forge. It -- oh sweet mother of mercy."
Lucien caught on first. "Your scar. Your scar's gone. What if --"
"The internal scar is healed as well? That means --"
"You're not barren anymore?"
She gave a hoot of laughter and threw her arms around Lucien's neck. He beamed, sharing her happiness. He said, "All I ever wanted was to be a help instead of a hindrance. I'm more than repaid."
"And I've seen the garden of the gods. I've heard Kaleya's voice." Magda shone with serenity. "I could never hope for anything more. Kastor, do you know what you were given?"
"Yes," he said, and left it at that. He stood, slung his satchel over his shoulder. "Where will you go now?"
Tanner said, "Back through Mathonwy's tunnel, I guess. After that, who knows? I don't think I want to go back to the army just yet. There's going to be tons of red tape, there's no procedure for being kidnapped by a Mara." She grinned, but it didn't last long. "You sound like you're not coming with us."
"I want to wander for a while. I think I like this place. You can see for miles. Magda, will you go back to the convent?"
"To the Library," she confirmed. "I still have a book to write." She made a thoughtful face. "And rather a lot of new material to integrate."
"If you'll all keep in contact, I can write to you there. It may be a long time, though. There's probably not a messenger post within a thousand miles." He raised his face to the wind. "I'll see you again someday, I'm sure of it."
With that, he struck out west, toward the sea. Behind him, there was a shocked silence. He wouldn't look back. Already his heart was pulling him to the empty miles ahead of him.
"Wait!" Lucien cried out behind him. "Kastor, wait a second!"
He stopped, reluctantly. He didn't turn. "Please understand. I have to go."
"We know that," Tanner said, her footsteps crunching closer. "You're a loner, we knew that all along. But that's no reason for you to starve." When he turned, bewildered, she thrust a package into his hands. He smelled jerked venison. "We can't eat this shoe leather, mate. You take it." She was smiling broadly.
"And you'll need this." Magda offered him the blank book Mikah had used to diagram their plan. "It wants poetry; using it for my field notes would be a waste."
"I hope Cad and Rys won't be mad at me." Lucien held out his birthday present, the bow and quiver of raven-fletched arrows. "But I can't hit the broad side of a barn from twenty paces. You're a hunter, it suits you better."
Kastor swallowed, smiled. "Thank you." He didn't even think of refusing their gifts. He was glad to have something from them to take with him. He put the book and food in his satchel, slung the bow and quiver across his back. Some soppy, emotional farewell was fighting to get out of his throat, but he choked it down. There was no point getting worked up; he'd see them again.
He waved. He turned. He walked.
* * *
Autumn was gaudy on the west coast of Nestria. Kastor was startled every time he saw a maple tree flaming pink, or a window garden still full of yellow chrysanthemums. The Nestrians celebrated autumn like they celebrated everything else, with genteel parties out in the open. As he passed the Imperial Way, the strip of garden that ran down the center of the city of Rilleine, he saw picnics underway, brightly dressed ladies and their dark-clothed gentlemen half drunk though it was still afternoon. Even the working classes celebrated, bunching around baskets of pork buns and warmed wine.
He liked it here. The people were reserved with strangers; their reserve made it easy for him to keep to himself. He thought he was getting to like some of the conveniences of civilization, at least for now. Sooner or later the wild places would call him, and he'd unpack his armor and weapons and head out. For now, he wore the Nestrian costume of loose trousers and wide-sleeved shirt, tied his hair back in a stubby version of the tail that Nestrian gentlemen wore, and applied himself to learning the language. He worked, he read, he watched the days turn.
Through the summer, he'd worked his way down the coast. He'd been a sailor for a month, a warehouse night guard for two weeks, deputized assistant in a manhunt for one exciting night, stablehand at a broken-down inn for eighteen tedious days. He'd fetched up in Rilleine the middle of last month, at the end of summer's heat. The first job he'd applied for, he'd been given on the spot, which he took as a sign that he should stay here a while. Maybe over the winter. Today, having worked the job for a time, made sure he liked being a tea-house doorman well enough to keep at it until spring, he'd gone to the Imperial Office to send a short note to Magda at the Library, telling her that he was all right, thinking of her and Tanner and Luce, hoping all was well with them.
It felt like the severing of a tie rather than a reconnecting. He'd done his duty by them. Let them know he'd kept his promise to Mikah, hadn't thrown himself in the sea or anything, was behaving like a reasonably normal human being.
He hadn't drawn a single drop of human blood in all this wandering. Not one fight. Even when he'd helped in the manhunt, he'd only lent them his skills as a tracker. The local authorities had made the arrest. Since working in the teahouse, he'd had to chuck out a few rowdies who bothered the girls, but it had been almost cordial. No hard feelings, just a firm hand on the shoulder and, "I think it's about time for you to go home." No one and nothing had tested his strength. His skills were getting rusty.
He didn't mind at all.
The sun was making a long streak on the sea. He liked this part of the walk to work. Past the Imperial Way, the road narrowed, dove steeply toward the forest of masts in the harbor. He felt as if he could lift his feet and skim like a seagull all the way to the ocean. He thought that if he had a long horizon, he could be happy anywhere. The sea was about the longest horizon there was.
The teahouse where he kept order was a tiny place, wedged between a grocer's and a shop that sold prints and paper. The green lanterns over the windows had already been lit, and the white lamp that pointed up the painted sprig of orange blossom over the door. Orange blossom meant that some of the girls would serve more than tea, but it had to be arranged in a civilized manner; it was not quite a brothel. Anyone fondling the merchandise without paying for it was considered to be a thief, and that was what Kastor was for. He suspected the reason he'd been given the job so easily was because he'd admitted to the lady proprietor that his tastes didn't run to females. He was content to be paid in coin and day-old pastries.
Today, one of the servers who sometimes worked the back rooms greeted him outside the door. She was standing there tapping her sandal against the step as if it were falling off, bending to fidget with the strap. Her name was Yeshina; not the brightest of his co-workers, but generally good-natured.
"Shoe problems?" he greeted her.
She frowned a bit, deciphering his speech. He'd learned the words easily enough, in his month of speaking nothing but Nestrian, but he apparently had a thick accent. She grabbed his sleeve, faking a scowl, but her eyes were twinkling. "About time you got here, you lucky boy."
"What do you mean? I'm early."
"You have a visitor."
"I do what?"
"Someone's here to see you. He's very handsome. And he looks rich."
Kastor scratched his chin. Who would know he was here? She wouldn't describe Mathonwy that way, but he thought the archmage was the only one who could have found him. Maybe some agent of his? He couldn't imagine Cad or Rys coming alone; they were a pair. Still, he asked. "Craggy fellow, black hair, Kyri like me? Or with slanty green eyes, very pretty?"
"No, no. Fair."
"Luce? Red hair, bright red hair."
She giggled. "No. Blond. How many boyfriends do you have?"
Shaken, he answered absently. "None." He turned the latch, knowing what he hoped to see, and what he feared.
Hope died when he saw the color of the visitor's short-cropped hair. Silver-white, crowned by a circlet of gold-chased ivory. The pale Mara was in the middle of conversation with one of the girls who only served tea, and he was making her smile. She poured a stream of dark brew into his cup and set down the pot. Of course Stiaan would prefer bitter black.
Kastor sat down across from him without a greeting. They examined each other in silence. Stiaan had discarded his white silk and diamonds; he was dressed in humble gray-green linen, his cloak heather gray, his only jewelry the ivory circlet and a ring of worthless green agate. And what he'd done to his hair -- what must have been decades of care and vanity, gone. He had changed; it was dizzying, how different he was. There was a stillness about him, an air of waiting, that might be an angel's legacy. Before him on the table lay an iron box, the one Mathonwy had given to Mikah. There was no lock on it now.
The serving girl placed a cup before Kastor. "Fadina says you can take as long as you like, Kas. Will you and your guest want anything to eat?"
Stiaan shook his head slightly. Kastor said, "No, thanks. I don't think this will take long." He switched to Semnian as she left. "Hello, Stiaan. What can I do for you?"
Stiaan's lips curved a little, not quite a smile. "I admit I didn't expect such a courteous greeting. I have, after all, caused you some pain."
"It's good to see you taking responsibility." He intended to be sarcastic, but found he meant it.
"It's easy to talk. Easy to apologize in words. Remorse itself, I haven't mastered. I've come to give you something." He slid the box across the table. "I've taken what was in this for me. The rest is for you. A message from my brother. A treasure. I want it for myself, but I give it to you. Someday, perhaps, that sort of thing won't be difficult." He stood. He placed a neat stack of copper on the table; the exact price of the tea. "I wish you well, Kastor Auberlane."
Kastor nodded mutely. Stiaan left.
He opened the box. It contained a roll of paper. He shut it again. He wouldn't read it now, not when he had to work.
Yeshina plunked down in Stiaan's vacated chair and took up his untouched cup. "So?" she encouraged. "Spill! Who was that?"
Kastor considered her eager smile, considered the fact that she wouldn't understand. He told her anyway. "I had a lover, who died. That was his brother, coming to give me a keepsake."
Her expression wavered between the sympathy she knew she should express, and glee over this juicy bit of gossip. "He died?"
"Yes. About six months ago."
"That was his brother?"
She glanced at the door. "Was your lover that handsome?"
"He was the most beautiful thing on earth. As warm as his brother is cold. I don't think we'll see Stiaan again, Yeshina. Go ahead and finish his tea."
She looked down at the cup in her hands as if she hadn't noticed it was there. When she looked up again, she'd mustered something like real sympathy. "I'm sorry, Kas. I shouldn't have pried."
"It's all right." He took the box to put it in Fadina's office, where no one would touch it until his shift was over.
He worked in a daze, but that was nothing unusual. He'd gathered that the girls and the regulars believed he was some kind of savage mystic, thinking deep Kyri thoughts. In fact, he was thinking nothing at all. He saw Yeshina whispering with the other girls, with glances at him, and after that they gave him sympathetic pats on the arm whenever they passed him. He offered them shallow smiles.
Maybe this reminder of the past should have reopened old wounds. It didn't, though. It didn't hurt. It helped, perhaps. A circle closed.
When his shift ended, he retrieved the box and went home. Leaves pattered across his path like mice; the street was empty, it was almost morning. The house were he rented a room was high in the hills above the bay, in a quarter occupied by day-laborers and minor artisans. He'd chosen this room because there was an outdoor stair, so that he didn't have to disturb the landlord with his early-morning arrivals. Because of the height of the house and of the hill, the room's one window had a view of the whole city.
That view was the room's only decoration. He slept on a mat on the floor, which he rolled up when he woke. He bought used books with his pay from the tea shop, but sold them back when he'd finished them, to save money; there were only a handful of volumes on the trunk that served him as both table and wardrobe, and one of them was the silver-stamped ledger, waiting for the rare moments when he had words worth writing. In the far corner was another trunk, this one locked, which contained his armor and weapons, along with a few personal items. The book with the bad poems he'd written after meeting Mikah for the first time. A little box containing the acorn Mikah had given him, that day when he'd been so angry. The dragon's painting.
Lighting a lamp, he sat on the windowsill and opened the iron box. Now that he looked seriously, he found that it contained two sheets of parchment rolled around each other, and in the center something small and heavy. He tilted the roll. Something glittering slid out into his hand: a golden key on a chain. It made his palm tingle a little with quiet magic.
The inner sheet was a map, sketched in quick strokes of a brush. It looked, Kastor thought bemusedly, like a treasure map.
The outer sheet was a letter, written in Semnian. Mikah's sprawling handwriting, in ink faded and browned with time.
I write to you from the past. You haven't even been born yet, but my scryings tell me I'll find you, in the course of my quest. I don't know your name, what race or country will bear you, whether you'll be strong or weak, gentle or raging, true or fickle. But I know the smell of your hair and the curve of your neck, because my visions show these things to me.
I know I'll have to leave you. I don't know whether I'll have time to make you understand why. I don't know whether you'll be angry with me. If you've forgiven me, I thank you.
Knowing the future is a wretched burden. I'll erase all this from my mind except the memory that I once knew it. When I meet you, we'll be strangers. I'll leave this somewhere you'll find it. I sense that you might like a souvenir.
The key and map will lead you to my treasure hoard. I say that as a joke -- there's not much gold there, and there will be less once you get to it. All you'll find is what I kept to remind me of things that were important to me once. I doubt they'll mean anything to you, but you can have them if you like. The place itself is a place of power, which might cause you trouble. I would avoid passing this trouble on to you, except that a vision showed you using the key and coming to great things by it, and it's folly to sabotage one's own prophesies.
Do what you like with what I've given you -- profit by it or throw it away, forget me or mourn me, as you please. I'm content to know you've read these words, a kiss from my hand to yours, and a farewell.
Kastor read the letter three times. Then he rolled it up with the map, returned it to its box, and locked it in the trunk. He hung the key around his neck.
The harbor bell rang six. He blew out his lamp, and the room went purple with fading shadow. Sitting in the window, he watched morning growing over the city. His fingers idly traced the shape of the key through his shirt.
Maybe one day he'd go looking for the lock that would fit the key. If Mikah had seen it, it would probably happen. Someday. Not now.
"Thank you," he said softly. "The key is enough."