Though this is a complete novel, I'm still happily accepting critiques, since it's going to get a major rewrite eventually. My studio buddy Sarah Cloutier is working on a prequel, and I'm in the process of outlining and writing the rest of the series. The characters won't change, and key events won't change, but some dialogue and references will necessarily end up different.]
The world was on fire. Storms of flame and storms of ice battled for the sky; the ground was churned mud and broken bone. Charis struggled through this hideous landscape, knowing that there was shelter somewhere, that someone was waiting to take him in, if only he could find the place.
A light shone ahead. It was a cool blue light, not a campfire but a summer evening, and there was a circle of stillness at the top of a hill. There, two men stood back to back, arms outstretched, holding off the storms. One of them was his father. He didn't look the same as he had when Charis had last seen him, sad and scruffy with his hair chopped short like a child's, but ten feet tall, still as a stone, black and silver, and his warding hands were steady as stars no matter how the wind beat at them. The other man was like a mirror of him in white. Charis toiled up the hill to tumble between their heels, and found he'd fallen on warm grass, and that there was a blue sky overhead.
The circle of calm was holding, but Charis knew it had to get bigger. This little bit of peace was no use to anyone. He said, "Father, let me help you. One feather can tip the scale..."
"Save your strength," his father said, in that thunder-deep voice Charis had heard for the first time only last spring. "You'll be needed to clean up the mess afterwards."
Charis looked down at the strewn wreckage that covered the whole world, and his heart shrank at the size of the task. "But I'm only a little kid," he protested -- and his voice came out as deep as Father's, and his hands on the grass were knotted with muscle and scars. It made him afraid. It meant there were no more excuses.
Charis woke scrunched back against the wall, pillow in his arms, blankets twisted around his waist. For a long moment he held still, waiting for the dream's fear to leave him. He whined like a dog; his breath made a white wisp of steam. The fire in his room had gone out long ago.
He shoved impatiently free of his bedding, grabbing his cane to help him up with a motion so habitual he no longer thought about it. The silver-banded stick of polished wood ticked on the stone floor as he crossed to the window. He hesitated as he reached for the shutter latch -- his nurse kept reminding him he was too delicate to be hanging out the window in winter -- but was reassured by the sound of her snoring in the next room. He threw the window open and leaned out.
It was a blinding white day, bitterly cold, and the wind scoured Charis's cheeks to stinging at the first gust. The royal family's quarters were at the top of the cliff-carved warren of Winter Camp, and from here Charis could see forever across the plains. Probably a thousand miles, he guessed. All of it was mottled white and tan, snow heaped in snaking dunes and scoured down to the grass between. The sky, still bruised from dawn, was more yellow than blue near where the sun was.
He hadn't been outside all week. Being cooped up was infuriating. He had to think of a reason to go out. The dream had filled him with a sense of unfocused urgency. He didn't understand what it meant, but he'd had some variation of that dream at least six times so far. When he'd told Grandma of the first one, she'd suggested that he write them down, but seemed unimpressed, so he hadn't mentioned them since. He was sure they meant something, though.
Shutting the window, he set to the slow task of getting all his layers of clothing on. On top of the linen breeches and undershirt and wool stockings he'd slept in, he added wool trousers, a silk shirt, a wool felt vest, a silk sash, a boiled wool jacket, and a fur-lined long-coat. All of it was midnight blue with red decoration; Auberlane colors. He gathered his hair up in his hands, pretending he was going to tie it in a warrior's tail, but had to let it go. It just brushed his shoulders. Every time it got this long, he prayed no one would make him cut it, so he could stop looking like a baby. He knew his nurse would notice before spring, though.
Finally, he looped the strings of his purse through his sash, then checked inside to make sure everything was there. The folded wad of paper in case he had to remember something, and a wax-dipped stick of lead for writing it down. The earring his mother had once let him play with, the tarnished bronze ring he'd found in a distant storeroom while exploring, the braided horsehair keeping-charm that helped him make his pony obey him. Most important, rolling around the bottom, the handful of tubular silver beads that he'd taken off his festival shirt. Those would stand in place of money if he ever got the chance to go looking for his father. He hoped they'd be enough to get him there, wherever there was. Though he had no clue, he was sure he'd be guided somehow.
He was a patient child, everyone told him so, but there was a limit. He was going to find out what these dreams meant, even if he had to run away from home to do it.
* * *
"What's this, Grandma? What's this one?"
Nhedra sighed, her breath wreathing her in white fog. "It's yarrow, Charis, just like the last fifteen weeds you showed me."
"But the others had the big flat brushy part, and this has a little one."
"Yes, it's a small, pathetic yarrow plant. You've identified the difference. Good for you."
Charis put his mittened fists on his hips and frowned up at her, gray eyes stern in his pale face. "Now I know why my father turned out so weird."
"You're the one who wanted to come with me today. I told you it would be dull." Then she relented and smiled at him. "You're very dedicated, to want to learn herbs from me. But winter isn't the best time for it."
The boy just shrugged. He planted his cane in the thin snow and, leaning on it, took a deliberate step forward. Nhedra took the hint and started walking again.
He wasn't really interested in learning her craft. She understood that. Unless he had the spark of Seeing, or at least some serious magical aptitude, there was no point training him as a shaman. And he was too young for those gifts to become apparent. His fey, serious manner implied that they'd manifest soon, but then, his father had been the same way, and developed no talent to speak of.
She knew why he was really out with her today, walking in the bitter cold, under the blue-white sky of deep winter. Despite his stunted right arm and leg, and the oddly white skin he'd inherited from his father, the boy had a true Kyri soul, and couldn't stand to be indoors too long. Winter Camp, that warren of rooms carved deep into a cliff, was like a prison to him. More so than for other children, who could run and climb. Charis could move about without his cane for a little while, but it tired him. His mother Alys, the Gethanein, had no time for him, being involved entirely with the business of rulership. He was surrounded by nurses, guards, and tutors, but essentially alone. Nhedra didn't mind that he followed her around whenever he could. No one else would slow down for him.
Anyway, minding Charis was getting to be less of a chore with each month that passed. His intelligence was astonishing, and he was learning to articulate his thoughts, so that it was often possible to have a real conversation with him. Truth be told, he was far better-spoken at eight than his father, Kastor, had been at that age.
Of course, eight was the age at which Kastor had decided he didn't need a mother. He'd run away in early spring, and hadn't showed his face for three months. She could still summon an ice-needle into her heart, remembering her fear for him then. Her divinations had told her he wasn't dead, but for the first time in her life, she'd distrusted them. She'd been so stunned when he'd returned, filthy and unconcerned, with a brace of wild chickens for her. Not a gift, no; he'd wanted to trade them for a proper bow. His child-sized bow didn't have the power to take birds on the wing, he'd explained. He'd taken her woman's fowling bow and vanished for another half year. He was never more than a visitor to her after that.
Charis was her chance to do it right. To be a mother to someone. She thought the gods might have been a little heavy-handed, giving her a cripple who couldn't possibly run off the way Kastor had. Still, it was good to be needed.
"This is milkweed," Charis announced suddenly. He shredded a pod in his good hand, let the fragments fall. "That one's easy."
"It's a good bit farther. Are you tired?"
"No," he lied. She didn't contradict him. He could push himself if he wanted to. What was his stunted leg going to do, get smaller?
"You're about to lose your scarf."
"Grandma." He adjusted the scarf clumsily, hindered by mittens. He scowled when she patted his cap more firmly onto his head. He hated the round felt hat he was made to wear; by its design, it couldn't be worn with a warrior's high ponytail, and thus was a garment for weaklings, by his reckoning. He sulked a while before a question occurred to him, making him forget his bad temper. "Who are we going to see, anyway? You didn't say."
"That's because I don't know."
"Well then, how do you know where to go?"
"It's a call. A pull. I feel it here." She tapped her breastbone. "It's something a seer can do. I know someone needs my help, that's all."
"What kind of help?"
"I don't know. This person is calling on purpose, though, I can tell that much. It's someone with the gift. Perhaps another clan's shaman had an accident on his way to winter camp."
"Then shouldn't we be bringing more people? With horses? What if he's got a broken leg?"
"Then I'll summon horses."
His eyes went round. "You can do that?"
"How come I've never seen you do it, then?"
"I never needed to."
"But didn't you ever do it just for fun?"
"When I was younger, I summoned all sorts of things just to see if I could."
"Why'd you stop? Did something bad happen?"
"No. Something good. Something so good I knew I could never top it."
Charis limped along in silence for another ten minutes. Suddenly he said, "You summoned my grandfather."
She looked at him sharply. "Where did you hear that?"
"You shouldn't blurt out all your guesses. Sometimes it's dangerous to be right."
To his credit, he didn't reply, though he watched her narrowly for a while. She hoped he couldn't see that he'd shaken her. She'd underestimated him, and given too many hints. Fortunately, Alys still insisted on telling everyone that Kastor's father had been a demon, which was a long way from the truth. He had been something far higher. She had called him for power, not love, but she still got a sense of bittersweet vertigo from seeing his silvery eyes in Kastor's face, and now in Charis's. She was never tempted to break her vow and tell his identity. After all, she would see him again, one day.
At their slow pace, it took them another hour to reach the source of the calling. She could tell Charis was worn out, and expected to have to carry him home. He stayed doggedly by her side, though, as she climbed up a snow-dusted ridge and into knifing wind to look for the caller on the other side.
When she saw who'd called her, she stopped, reaching out to catch Charis's shoulder. "I want you to go back down the hill. Get out of the wind. Go home, if you have the strength for it."
It was a long moment before he tore his eyes away to answer her. "I do. But I want to come."
"I know. I'm curious too. The difference is that I know spells to protect myself, and you don't. Go home."
He hesitated, frowning down at the hollow where the summoner, the Mara, patiently waited. "That's the same sort of thing as the yellow-haired one who fought the ordeal for my father last year. You said that one wasn't bad. You said he was good."
Nhedra made a mental note to ask him later how he'd known the man was a Mara. Perhaps he'd make a shaman after all. But asking now would just encourage him to stay. "That's not quite what I said. I don't know this one. We can talk about it later, Charis. Go."
With many backward glances, Charis crutched down the hill, away from the Mara and from her. She wished now that she hadn't brought him. Well, he was a determined little fellow; he'd make it home.
When she was sure Charis was out of harm's way, she approached the Mara. He was, as they all were, beautiful, ethereal, ageless. This one was snow-pale: white skin, silver hair, eyes like aquamarine stones, so light a blue that they were almost colorless. On his brow he wore a circlet of ivory and gold which breathed out immense power, immense stillness, the kind of restrained and gigantic energy one sensed from a glacier or a quiet sea. Yet there was something strangely humble about him.
She had not seen so many Mara in her life that she could make generalizations; the neutral angels were rare in the extreme. Nevertheless she thought it was unusual that this one wore his hair cut so short it stood up, like a Semnian soldier's. It was definitely odd that he wore sturdy travelling clothes of sage green and gray, a little frayed at the seams, and well-worn workman's boots laced with mismatched twine. He was unarmed except for an eating knife at his belt. Aside from the circlet, his only jewelry was a green agate stone on the first finger of his left hand. Had she been head-blind, she would never have guessed what he was.
He'd chosen a clutch of boulders as his waiting place, and gestured to her to seat herself on one, as if this were his private parlor. In a pleasant voice, warm and soft, he said, "Thank you for coming. I hope I wasn't too premptory."
"I would have liked a bit more information," Nhedra said. She sat on a stone just out of arm's reach, tucking her cloak around her.
"I apologize. I understand that foreigners aren't welcome on the Sei, so I thought it might make trouble if I sought you out. I saw that you had a child with you. You can call him, if you like. I won't harm him."
"Never mind him. He'll be fine. Tell me who you are and what you want."
"My name is Stiaan." He paused, watching her face.
Shock stiffened her back. The only thing that kept her from flinging out her strongest magics to cover a hasty retreat was the worry in his eyes. He knew she would have heard the name, and -- of all the strange things for a Mara to do -- feared her reaction to it.
This was the one responsible for the plague of demons that had troubled the north last year. The one whom Kastor and his odd collection of friends, including the golden Mara who had been his lover, this creature's brother, had gone to fight. She knew they'd won; her scrying had told her so. "Why are you still alive?"
"I ask myself that occasionally." He bowed his head. "My brother was too kind to me. He refused to stop at defeating me; he wanted to save me from myself. I don't know yet if he succeeded. But whatever you've heard about me, it's no longer true. I only came to ask your help in your capacity as shaman. I need a vision interpreted, that's all. Then I'll trouble you no more."
"Why come to me? Haven't you the learning to dissect your own dreams?"
"Not this one. It has to do with your gods, I think, and your son. I can make no sense of it."
"What fee do you offer me?"
He opened his mouth, shut it. Frowned. "That's right, by tradition you can't name a price. Well, would you like this?" From a pocket of his coat he took something clinking, gleaming. "I don't wear these anymore." He poured it into her hand: a chain of some metal whiter than silver, with teardrop-shaped diamonds dangling from it.
She hesitated. It was too much. She couldn't begin to guess its value. "What does this necklace mean to you?"
"It reminds me of a vanity I'm trying to put behind me."
"Very well." She put it in her purse. "Tell me your vision. Tell me first how you can have had a dream, since your kind don't need sleep."
"Not often, but we do sleep sometimes. In my dream I saw a white deer, a white stag, and felt compelled to hunt it. It seemed right that I was hunting, though I never kill animals now. I pursued it for what seemed days, and finally I shot it. When I came upon the beast, I saw that it was my own body dying there, with an arrow in my chest. It was very vivid; I saw the arrow vibrating with my heartbeat. Yet I was still the hunter. When I saw my reflection in the pool of blood, my face was the face of your son -- but with curling horns sprouting from his brow." He let out a long breath, relieved to have unburdened himself. "What does it mean?"
Nhedra didn't reply for a time. She had unfocused her mind to hear the vision. It had come to her more strongly than she was accustomed to, this time. His memory was very clear, his telling plain, and so she had seen it while he'd spoken. She'd seen the startlement of scarlet blood on Stiaan's snowy flesh, the animal staring of his icy eyes as the sense went out of them, and the face in the pool. At last she said, to be sure, "Ram's horns."
"Yes. I suppose that's what they were."
With the images had come the sensations he hadn't related. She had to be still for a long time, to examine them honestly, because they disturbed her. Perhaps they disturbed him as well, since he hadn't mentioned them. Feelings of intense sexual arousal. The vision of a white stag was a common one, and had a common meaning, but the lust he hadn't mentioned -- which her Sight had brought her nonetheless -- was not part of that dream.
"When one dreams of hunting a white stag," she said at last, "it means a difficult task begun. Whether or not one kills the stag --"
"Yes, yes," he interrupted. "That's standard. But there are elements -- it was me, and I was Kastor -- the symbols are all distorted."
She thought for a little while longer, wondering what he'd do to her if she were honest. She concluded that it didn't matter; she wouldn't give a false answer, not when she'd accepted payment. "You honestly want to know."
"Well, yes, or I wouldn't have asked."
"You lust after my son. That's what it means. It's apparently a common problem among your kind." She stood up and turned to go.
"Wait!" He followed. "That can't be all. There are elements that obviously have something to do with your gods, with your Hunter god --"
"Yes, but that part's none of your business. Good day to you, Stiaan." She walked away, and this time he let her. When she looked back, at the top of the hill, he was gone.
She looked for Charis, but he was nowhere near. He was probably home already. She was glad not to have to answer his questions. The implications of the Mara's vision -- and especially of his having come to her with it -- were nothing she wanted to discuss with a child.
It had disturbed her deeply to feel, even vicariously, the immortal's lust. It was not like a mortal desire. There was something horribly raw about it, punishingly strong; perhaps like the hormonal ragings of an adolescent boy, but focused like the need of an adult -- a mentally unbalanced adult. She didn't want that kind of obsessive creature sniffing after her boy. But what could she do about it? Kastor had always been beyond her control. He could protect himself. He was strong, and a vicious fighter when his blood was up. And if he chose instead to reciprocate those raw desires... well, she'd long ago given up trying to understand his inversion. For a man to lust after men made no sense, but there it was, and there seemed to be no changing it. He'd given her a grandchild anyway, so she had no grounds for complaint.
Her divinations had told her he was no longer with that yellow-haired Mara, so perhaps he'd be open to the silver one's advances. Maybe she should have said something. If you hurt my boy I'll -- right, very plausible. Possibly she could warn Kastor. But when had he ever listened to her warnings?
Chewing on this dilemma, she returned to her wagon instead of to the tunnels, intent on scrying. Charis would be annoyed that she didn't explain to him why she'd sent him home, but it couldn't be helped. The whims of Mara could be dangerous; this couldn't be ignored.
* * *
Stiaan was irritated with himself for being disappointed. He shouldn't have expected the witch to answer him fully or clearly. She hadn't told him anything he didn't already know.
You lust after my son -- but that wasn't the point, was it? He'd recognized and conquered that sensation in the first thirty seconds of their acquaintance. Though he considered the idea of lying with a halfbreed to be in questionable taste, he was not ashamed of the sensation. After all, Kastor Auberlane was very beautiful, and had more than looks to reccomend him if Mikah had called him beloved. If Stiaan felt guilty about anything, it was that he'd allowed himself to entertain the idea of stealing the fellow from Mikah on the last day of Mikah's life. And perhaps because he remembered the look in Kastor's eyes after Mikah's sacrifice. That emptiness. My fault.
What he'd wanted to know was what the rest of the dream meant. The reversal, the death, the signs of the Hunter. Her answer had been odd. That part's none of your business, as if she understood perfectly but it was a secret.
If gods were going to be playing with him again, he wasn't going to stand for it this time. He'd had enough of that. Last time, he'd simply slid aside, allowed their machinations to pass through him without touching him; if they were at it again, they'd learn that a Mara was not so far from divine that it was safe to toy with one. Well, maybe it was Kastor who was the pawn this time. If so, it was none of Stiaan's concern.
And yet -- the vision had been so strong, and so unnerving. It gnawed at the back of his mind.
Moreover, did he have any right to resist the Ascended if they had a use for him? He no longer had any use for himself, after all, and no legitimate claim to his pride or freedom. His actions of the past century had been tantamount to an attack on Heaven. He had been a plague among angels. If they wished to use him, perhaps he should bow to them. But the fact of divnity didn't necessarily make a being benevolent, as Stiaan well knew. He'd certainly been right to resist that slut Astaria when -- but if the Kyri Duality wanted something from him -- though why would that pair use any tool but one of their own? Or was Stiaan to assist their chosen agent? Kastor's inclusion in the dream implied something like that. Although Kastor hadn't seemed the type to welcome the help of a former enemy -- not that Stiaan knew the boy at all well, considering that they'd spent half of their single hour's acquaintance trying to kill each other, and their only other conversation had been an excercise in emotionlessness.
Possibly if he spoke to Kastor... it wouldn't be a pleasant conversation, but he might gain some information. What was there to be afraid of? Recriminations? There was nothing Kastor could say that would be worse than what Stiaan said to himself on a daily basis.
He slowed his step. He sensed a presence ahead. Someone lying in wait for him.
Sending out his senses, he determined that it was not a Mara or a demon, so he continued on his way. The only mortal who could harm him, he wouldn't have been able to sense. Shortly he came in sight of a small figure perched on a rock. It was the child who'd been with the witch. Had she sent some message by him? Stiaan approached the little boy and gave him a slight bow.
The boy nodded solemnly in return, with princely dignity. They looked at each other, unspeaking. The child had a familiar look to him. Pale skin, gray eyes, a fringe of fine, straight, blue-black hair showing under his hat. Thin, serious face; confrontational posture. Judging, demanding.
Stiaan said, "You're related to Kastor Auberlane, aren't you."
"I'm his son," said the boy, with neither pride nor shame. "You're the same kind of creature as the one last year. Mikah."
"I'm his brother."
The boy gave a satisfied nod.
"Is there something you want from me?"
"Yes. I want you to take me to my father."
Stiaan raised an eyebrow. "What makes you think I'll agree to something like that?"
"I dreamed you. I have a dream of you and my father standing back to back, fighting off storms and fire. I don't know what you wanted from my Grandma, but I think you're really here to find me. We'll go to my father. It's important."
Stiaan paused, surprised. He had been about to refuse, had been asking only by way of making conversation, but this was perhaps the only answer that could have gotten him to agree. He said, "Would it suffice for me to carry a message to him? Your mother will be wroth if I steal you away."
The boy drew himself up, lifting his chin, meeting Stiaan's eyes with no fear and no concept of surrender. He looked astonishingly like his father when he did that. "My mother is very busy and doesn't need me pestering her. Maybe I'm meant to help my father. My mother doesn't need any help from me."
Pity came, sympathy, like falling unexpectedly backwards into cold water: the boy was lonely, as lonely as Stiaan had been when he'd believed Mikah had abandoned him. More so, because he was just a mortal child, had to rely on others, and when those others disappointed him, he could do nothing about it. Except that in this case he could do one thing; he could try to reach his father. The fact that the boy wasn't trying to play on Stiaan's feelings, but was simply stating the facts as he saw them, made Stiaan feel a kind of kinship with him.
He nodded. "You don't look as if you can walk very well."
"I'm slow, but I can walk."
"I don't want to be slow." Stiaan reached his senses out and called the nearest suitable creature. When a badger came lumbering out of the bracken, he spoke a few heavy words. The beast whuffled indignantly as its body swelled and changed. Then there stood before him a tall, sturdy horse, black with white markings. Stiaan mounted bareback. He reached down to the child.
The boy was gawking, round-eyed. He wasn't so astonished, though, that he was willing to miss his chance. Tucking his walking cane through his belt like a sword, he held up his arms, allowed himself to be lifted up in front of Stiaan.
As he nudged the made-horse to a gentle walk, Stiaan said, "How do you know that I can find your father?"
"If you can make a horse out of a badger, you can do anything."
"Not quite true. In this case, though, I happen to have a way. I have a bit of his blood. I kept it just in case I ever needed to find him again." As he mentioned it, he used it; hidden under his shirt, the tiny vial that hung around his neck contained a minute quantity of brown powder, and exerted a powerful pull to the southwest.
"How did you get it? Did he give it to you?"
"We fought. Did you think I was a friend of his? I'm not. We might be enemies. It's very foolish of you to come with me. For all you know, I'll do you some harm."
"No," the child said confidently. "I can tell by looking at you."
"It's not. I can tell. You make a face like this when you're thinking." The boy twisted around to give him a show of exaggerated brow-furrowing and lip-biting. "People like that never hurt anybody."
"I've hurt a great many people, child."
"I bet you had a different thinking face, then."
"I suppose I did." Stiaan found he was smiling. "Shall we go a little faster?" He caged the boy in his arms, so there was no chance of his falling off, and kicked the horse to a gallop. The boy have a whoop of pure joy and threw away his hat.
Kastor checked the map. This was the place, all right. The map the Silver Circle wizards had given him was different from the one Mikah had drawn, but now that he was in the area he was certain they depicted the same place. Somewhere in this valley was the door to Mikah's storehouse or stronghold or something, the key to which hung around Kastor's neck. Which left the question of why there was a demon bound to guard it, since that didn't seem like Mikah's style.
That mystery was one reason he'd accepted the job of slaying the demon. The other was baser: money. Not that he had expensive tastes, but he liked to buy books, and he wanted to be able to send more money to his mother. He'd never enrich her branch of the clan and increase her influence with the pittance he'd been sending her.
This job payed eleven hundred estas in gold. That was enough to buy a house in a good part of Rilleine. There was no telling what Nhedra would do with it.
This wasn't the first odd job he'd picked up. He hadn't wanted to get back into thieving, since the Nestrian mob was territorial about that sort of thing, but there were a few legitimate tasks for a clever-handed killer. A bit of bounty hunting, a bit of bodyguard work. He'd made exactly one friend, a good-natured behemoth named Jos who didn't understand him but didn't need to, and knew it. Someone for back-porch bullshitting and day-off fishing trips. He thought maybe when he got the money from this, he'd do something nice for Jos, thank him for being so tolerant, and for always bringing a bottle.
The Circle mages who'd offered the bounty had told him this demon was somehow magic-proof. That, they'd explained rather defensively, was why they weren't taking care of it themselves. And ordinary weapons wouldn't hurt a demon. He'd been the only applicant; it was possible that swords like his, with their subtle enchantment, were the only things that could take it out. So he'd have to engage it in a straight fight, take it out as fast and as cleanly as possible. It would be best if he could avoid taking any injury. He'd gotten demon blood in a cut before, and it had turned the wound numb and white. Mikah had healed him of that, but hadn't told him of anything but Mara power that would do the trick.
He was, he knew, flirting with death. That was all right. He hadn't promised to live safely, only that he wouldn't suicide. This wasn't suicide. He had a fighting chance.
Now he'd scoped the whole area thoroughly, and seen no sign of the demon. It was a hidden valley in the mountains of central Nestria, only a week's ride from Rilleine. He'd queried the inhabitants of nearby villages, and been told not to come here, as it was certain doom. Really, the place was pretty obvious. He wondered if it was a good idea to remove the demon guardian. Mikah's letter about the site had claimed it was a place of power. But then, Kastor had the only key. He hadn't yet seen any structures or doors, but he would look more closely when it was safe. He wasn't sure yet whether he'd use the key. He hadn't meant to, but since he was already here, he might change his mind.
Well, he wouldn't get to decide that if he didn't stop fussing with the maps and get to business. The demon didn't seem to be stomping around in material form leaving footprints in the snow. He'd have to make it show itself. Putting his maps away, he stretched a cramp out of his back, then drew his swords. He walked down into the valley.
It was a pretty place, in winter. Wind-twisted pines on the upper slopes, meadow on the valley floor. The dark stone of the mountainside contrasted nicely with the snow. The approach had been tough, over a high rocky saddle that was scoured to glare ice by the wind, but even in the mountains a southern winter was nothing to a Kyri. Maybe someday he'd come back and build himself a little shack here, alternate his days between hunting small game and reading by the fire. Maybe get himself a dog. A dog would be handy now, in fact, since it might smell the demon for him. He was seeing no sign of it.
A paranoid thought flashed through his mind: there was no demon. The Circle wanted to get him, with his key, into this place, get him to open the door so they could get at Mikah's treasures.
As he thought that, though, a different sort of unease ran through him, crawling up his spine and across his scalp. He spun just in time to fend off a descending claw.
The demon was enormous. Eight feet tall, at least. Shiny-black like tar, like the one Kastor had fought last year, but otherwise completely different. The other one had been shorter than a man, apelike, lumbering. This one was long and lithe, with an extra set of arms, and a vulpine snout snapping at his face. He scrambled back, but it was as fast as he was, and pressed him, wouldn't let him get space free to use his swords' length. Panic jumped into his stomach, tightened his throat. He could see the intelligence in the creature's eyes. Red and gold slit-pupiled eyes, locked onto his own with intent fury. It attacked with total concentration. Kastor could barely defend himself, let alone get in a blow of his own. He was pushed back, and back, struggling for his life, almost tripped by snow with every step. The demon's claws raked and tore, stinging his arms and face, scoring furrows into the leather of his armor.
He was afraid. He was terrified. So where was his blood-madness?
If his berserker's strength wasn't going to come on -- and he couldn't invoke it at will, it only came when he was scared -- then skill would have to substitute. He firmed his defensive stance, worked to analyze the creature's attack pattern. Shortly he found a weakness: though it had four arms and a long, whipping tail, it didn't use them all at once. It seemed a bit clumsy with the lower pair of arms. It only used the tail for balance. He'd read somewhere that a demon's true form looked nothing like these shapes they constructed for themselves; that they built their material bodies deliberately, each one more fearsome than the last. This one wasn't quite used to having so many limbs.
Whereas Kastor was perfectly at home in his shape, having occupied it for twenty-four years, and knew where all his arms and legs were.
He waited for his chance, and he gambled. As soon as he was able to block both upper arms with one sword, he ducked aside, ignoring the lower arms, to plunge his other blade into its torso.
The next moment, he was skidding across the snow, wet cold slithering down the back of his neck, gagging for breath. The weakness of the second pair of arms had been a ruse to draw him in. Along with this realization came the knowlege that if it had hit him anywhere but his armored chest, he'd be dead. And he still didn't have a workable strategy.
It was loping toward him, taking its time, tongue lolling. It was laughing at him. It knew he was beaten.
Kastor scrambled to his feet and ran.
He was halfway up the icy slope out of the valley before he realized it wasn't following him. It had chased him out; apparently that was enough. He sank down on a rock, wheezing. Rivulets of blood trickled down his arms and his face. He leaned over his knees, letting his swords fall into the snow. Fat, steaming, pink drops of mixed sweat and blood began to spatter his hands.
A moment's self-examination told him that none of his hurts were dangerous, though he'd be aching for weeks. But he no doubt looked like exactly what he was: the losing side.
"That," he gasped to himself, "was humiliating."
* * *
Whistling tunelessly, Jos Carter dodged through Havasday afternoon traffic with practiced ease, balancing a crate of bottles on his shoulder with the fingertips of one meaty hand, gently fending off passing strangers with the other. Working-class neighborhoods like this got crazy crowded this time of day, especially when the weather was so unseasonably warm. Though it was nearly midwinter, the sky was clear and people were out in light jackets or none at all. Everyone was heading home for a bite of dinner before finishing out the day's work. Mothers hollered to children, laborers strolled in pairs and knots, and eager hawkers plied their trade, taking advantage of the custom. Jos supposed he'd have had a bit of trouble with the crowd if he weren't head and shoulders above the rest of them.
He was on his way to visit a fellow named Kastor, the only man he knew who was as tall as he was. Not that this was why they were friends. They'd worked together briefly at Fadina's Teahouse, where Kastor had trained him in as a replacement doorman. Back then, Jos had thought the pale northerner was just about the strangest man he'd ever met. After Kastor had finished training him and gone on to other work, but continued to stop by from time to time for a bit of conversation, Jos had changed his mind; despite his odd looks, Kas was just a guy like any other. Maybe a bit calmer, a little quicker in the head, and probably involved in something illegal, but still just a guy.
Then, as they'd gotten to know each other, Jos had revised his estimate once more. There was something deeply weird about the man. But it was a friendly sort of weird, if somewhat melancholy, which lent itself well to back-stair drinking sessions.
Turning from thronged Gandry Avenue into a quieter residential street called Vander Row, he counted off nine identical gray three-story houses and cut around the back of the tenth. He always had to count, or he ended up facing some surly stranger at the top of the wrong set of steps. There was no danger of that this time, though. His friend hailed him as soon as he came in sight, leaning over the gaptoothed rail of his balcony.
Kastor claimed to have taken the room because it had an outside stair, but Jos suspected he just liked to have the option of throwing things down on people. Though he called a cheerful greeting, Kas had definitely palmed something just now, and if Jos had seen it, then he'd been meant to. There was mischief coming. Kas was wearing a thin cotton shirt, black like he always wore, untucked and mostly unbuttoned as if he were too warm instead of simply not freezing. He'd made his usual halfassed attempt at a queue, but his blue-black hair was too straight and slippery and a little too short, and more of it was out of the stubby braid than in, hanging in thick locks around his pale face.
Jos started up the stairs, feeling them creak under his weight. Unlike Kas, he was broad as well as tall. Though both of them topped six foot four, Jos weighed probably three times as much. One of these days the whole contraption was going to come off the wall, and he'd break his neck.
Kastor waited until he was on the next flight below before bouncing a cork off his head.
"You ass," Jos bellowed amiably, "and me with my hands full."
"I need the handicap, you know that." More corks peppered Jos on his way up the last steps. Kastor laughed. "Now I'm out of ammunition. Lucky you brought more." His Nestrian was far better than it had been when they'd met, but he still had an accent like molasses and pepper.
Jos set his crate in front of the attic door with a clank, standing protectively over it. He plucked a cork out of his hair, seeing that it was stained pink from wine. "See if I share, after that. Why do you always throw things on me?" Then he noticed the scratches on Kastor's cheek and neck, the bandages hinting out from under his shirt. "Lords and Ladies, Kas, what did you do to yourself?"
"Oh, I had a job," the northerner said airily.
"What's the other guy look like?"
Kas laughed. "I got my ass handed to me."
"Drowning the defeat?" Jos gestured to the litter of empty bottles around Kastor's feet, surprised at their number; there must have been a dozen of them.
"Oh, this? Thought it was time to clean out my room. There's a fellow who collects them. I was going to put them at the bottom of the stairs. But a couple of them were full, and the bottom of the stairs has been getting farther and farther away." He peered over the railing, shading his eyes comically. "I can't even see it now."
"Shift your clutter, I want to sit down."
Kastor lined up the bottles beside the door and sat crosslegged with his back against the house. The balcony that topped the stair was long and narrow, little more than a catwalk leading to the door of the attic he rented. The front porch of Jos's boarding house was much larger, and had some old chairs and cushions strewn around, which should have made it the venue of choice, but somehow this rickety balcony was the most excellent place for lazy drinking. Possibly because it had a view of the whole sea of roofs spilling down to the bay.
Jos flourished two earthenware bottles out of the crate, shorter and stouter than the empty ones, their corks sealed with wax. Kas raised an eyebrow at this extravagance. "Black Star?"
"The very same. I had Fadina order an extra case for me. You wouldn't believe how cheap it comes when you get it straight from the brewer. Those bottle-shops double the price."
Kastor produced a small, slim knife out of thin air, neatly cut the wax and speared out the cork, then made the knife vanish as if it had never existed. He was always doing stuff like that. Jos's realization that he wasn't doing it to show off -- that it was simply easier for him to pop hidden weapons in and out of existence like that than to carry and draw them the normal way -- had been the beginning of his decision that Kas was weird after all. The northerner took a long pull of the strong ale, then rolled his eyes back in ecstasy.
"It's like being hit over the head with a golden sledgehammer," Kastor sighed. "What are we celebrating?"
"Nothing. I just got the case in. We're sure as hell not going to drink it all tonight, so savor that one. If anything, this weather, we could toast to that." He held up his own bottle and they knocked them together with a dull clank. "What about this job of yours? You still get paid, if you didn't kill the fellow?"
"For the hundred and first time, Jos, I am not an assassin."
"You run with shady types," Jos teased, "what am I supposed to think?"
"If I was a cleaner, buddy, you can bet you'd never hear a word about it. I wouldn't bother making up stories; I'd make sure the thought never crossed your mind. Besides, I wouldn't tangle with the mob around here, they're sort of... insular. As a matter of fact, I was doing a bit of monster hunting for some wizards who didn't want to dirty their lily fingers. Unfortunately..." He shook back his sleeve, showing fresh red scars hatching his lean, cabled forearm. A couple of them were deep enough that the muscle was dented.
"Shit. That's too damn bad. For a man who makes a living with a blade..."
Kastor laughed. "Are you still prying? I told you what I do! Just odd jobs, really nothing interesting at all! Anyway, I got hold of some magical healing, so I don't think the weakness will last."
"I see that's not the worst of it."
"Oh, these?" Kastor looked down inside his half-unfastened shirt as if he hadn't noticed the bandages before. The little gold key he always wore was caught in a crease in them, and he tugged it free. "Cracked of couple ribs, and a seam on my armor opened me up over here." He pointed to a linen-wrapped place below his right collarbone, where breastplate would join shoulderguard. "Thing hit me so hard, that bit of leather cut right through my gambezon and stamped a hole in me. Damnedest thing I ever saw."
Jos shook his head slowly. "Sometimes I think you like it."
"What, monster hunting?"
"Getting half killed. Remember that bastard who stuck you in the leg my second night working? You were like this then too. Like it was funny that you just about bled out before the temple healer got there. We're trying to clamp down a spurting artery, and you're laughing."
"It wasn't an artery. Just a vein. Well, it was sort of funny, trying to explain the business to the Watch while the top of my head floated out over the bay somewhere."
"It was not funny." Jos scowled.
Kastor gave him a disarming grin. "Don't get sentimental on me, Jos, you're not my type."
"It's sentimental to tell you you're a lunatic?" Jos shrugged and let it go. "Well, you're a barbarian, ain't you." Whenever Kas made some not-quite-flirting comment like that, it was a signal that a subject change was necessary. It didn't bother Jos that Kastor was bent, and it didn't bother Kas that Jos wasn't, but making reference to it somehow threatened awkwardness.
"This is damn good beer," Kastor said, acknowleging the end of that thread of talk. They lapsed into companionable silence.
Jos watched shreds of cloud drift across the startlingly blue sky for a while, slowly sipping his beer. A couple things crossed his mind that he could talk about, but when he glanced at Kastor, he dismissed them. He could see that Kas was in one of his moods. You had to know him for a while before you could tell he had them, but he sure had them. If Jos were to start chatting, Kas would chat right back, smiling and being funny and waving his hands around like anyone, but it would be fake.
Out of the corner of his eye, he considered his friend's profile. Kas was looking at nothing in particular; looking at a bit of railing in front of him with an expression like that stick of dry-rot and peeling paint was his death warrant. The corners of his mouth were turned down, and his gray eyes beaming out sadness like light out of a lamp. Jos's heart went out to the kid, as always, but he knew better than to comment. Sometimes, if you just kept quiet, he'd tell you on his own. But usually not. Though Kas was only twenty-four years old, he'd somehow managed to do way too much living already; that was Jos's only theory. The poor boy was just a great big gloom cloud, under his friendly facade. Some folks, it annoyed; a few of the girls at the tea shop, and a lot of customers, had found Kastor's company intolerable, and had made up reasons for disliking him. Because he was foreign, they'd said, or because he was queer, or they said he was snotty or rude, which he wasn't. Jos figured what they really disliked was the feeling that they should be doing something to help him, and couldn't tell why they thought they ought to. The ones who liked him were the ones who could mind their own business, or the ones like Jos who had a soft spot for strays.
Jos had once seen that same expression in the eyes of a veteran Watch detective who'd discovered a pair of murdered children in an alley in Jos's old neighborhood. Jos had been questioned like all the neighbors, but something in his particular manner had moved the man to confide: It's damn sad, and I wish to Jazaan I could get mad about it. But these things happen. That was how Kas looked, when he forgot to cover it. Like he'd seen one rotten thing too many, and he was just too tired to be angry.
The sun sank by inches, the light turning golden, and the day's warmth fading. Jos buttoned up his coat. Kastor didn't seem to notice the cold.
"Guess this doesn't seem chilly to a northerner," Jos said.
The sudden speech after such a long silence didn't startle Kastor. Rather, it seemed to take a long time to reach him, wherever he'd been all this time. Slowly, he rolled his head back against the house wall and looked up at the sky.
Quietly, without any obvious emotion, he said, "I told you about Mikah once. Didn't I."
"The..." Jos stopped himself from saying, the dead one. Instead, he just said, "Yeah, you told me a little."
"I get reminded of him all the time, and it's not that bad. And then one thing will just hit so hard, it's like a tree fell on me. You know?"
Jos shook his head sympathetically. "I never lost anyone. I mean, my Ma, but she was sick a long time. And you said your boyfriend was -- you said it was sudden." Though Kastor hadn't explained much, Jos had gotten the impression that there had been fighting involved, and supposed the late Mikah must have been a sellsword like Kas. He'd heard of such things, soldiers who fought back to back and slept facing. Most of those must end up like this, one way or another.
"There was nothing I could do," Kastor said mildly, still watching the sky. "I try to blame myself sometimes, to see if it sticks, but it doesn't. What gets me is, there are things I could do now, things he left behind, unfinished things, I could do those for him, but I... but gods, what's the point? He's not going to see it."
"So that's what's eating you today."
"You weren't working at Fadina's yet when his brother came around. It's too bad, you'd know what I'm talking about."
Jos obediently recalled a description he'd heard from the girls, though he wasn't sure what understanding he was supposed to get from it. "I'm told he was a handsome fellow, Besmira thought he was a prince trying to pass for common. And nice manners."
"Yes. It's his fault."
"Stiaan. Mikah's brother. It's his fault Mikah's dead. Mikah was hauling Stiaan's stupid self-centered ass out of some trouble he'd gotten into. Still, I don't think about him much, I don't hate him, even though maybe I should. The problem is, I had a dream about him on my way back from this job I botched. I don't remember much, but I remember we were working together on something, and it was like we'd been doing it for years, we were good at it. Made me wonder if that was what he and Mikah were like, before he got himself all screwed up." He drew out a lock of hair over his eyes, twisted it, pushed it back. Sighed. "It made me think: Mikah had family, Stiaan's still out there somewhere, and if I knew where, if it was right next door, I still wouldn't go talk to him. To blame him or ask questions or kill him or comfort him -- I don't think I would. And that seems wrong somehow."
He lapsed into silence. Eventually he drained off the last of his bottle and set it gently back in the crate.
It pleased Jos to be confided in, but now he had to say something. It took some thinking, but it finally came to him. "When I used to work on the docks, before I wrecked my shoulder, there was this fellow I knew, this old sailor. Whole family was sailors, back to the dawn of time or something. Well, this man had one kid, a grown daughter. She was bosun on a merchant ship, one of those fat little coasters, wallow like ducks in any weather, safe as houses. And out of the blue this squall comes up and the girl goes overboard. Goes straight to the bottom. The old sailor was the last of his line and too old to remarry, and you see they were all sailors, and the sea had taken the last of them. What I'm saying is he lost the whole future over the rail that day. Not just his future but all his family stretching back to mud huts, all snuffed out.
"So how do you think he acted? Dignified. Gave the empty coffin a good funeral, moved in with a neighbor, went on with his life. And then one day, about two years later, he suddenly goes mad. Raving and googling and running around in his nightshirt. Turns out he got a letter from his nephew. The nephew was reported dead years before, but it turns out he got pressed by pirates, and when the pirates were captured he got off with flogging and a fine. The old sailor's not the last of his breed after all. He's got a posterity again. And it drove him bonkers."
Kastor raised an eyebrow and stared at him like that for most of a minute. When Jos didn't go on, he said, "And the moral of this story is?"
"Hell, I dunno. It's just what you said reminded me of it. About the brother."
"Maybe. I... maybe. That dream, it just... The problem with the dream was it felt so damn good to be working alongside Stiaan like that. Not as if he'd replaced Mikah, there was nothing carnal in the dream at all; we were just a good team."
"And you weren't mad that whatever stunt he pulled..."
"Right. And I should be."
"What, is he not sorry or something?"
Kastor shrugged. "With him, it's hard to tell. Oh well, I'll probably never see him again."
"You can have another of those beers if you want."
"Thank you kindly." This time, as Kastor got the bottle and opened it, his movements had more energy in them. The mood was over.
And you'd think, Jos said to himself, that the lesson would take. Telling a friend makes it better. But no, you'll clam up the next six times, I bet. Dumb kid.
The clop of hooves echoed up the alley, and they both looked over the rail in surprise. Not a lot of people who could afford to ride had business in this quarter. Though the light was mostly faded, Jos was able to make out that the rider was white-haired but not bent with age, and was carrying something in front of him that might have been a sleeping child.
Or, he thought with a shiver, a child's corpse.
Beside him, Kastor stiffened and froze. As the rider turned into the yard below and looked up at them on the balcony, Kas gave a strangled laugh. "The gods," he said carefully, "have a really, really fucked-up sense of humor." Then he stood up and called down to the white-haired fellow: "Hello again, Stiaan."
Hearing the name, Jos stood up as well, biting back some old saying about dreams announcing visitors. The man below dismounted, carefully cradling the child in his arms. He glanced at the horse; the horse shrank, suddenly, to a cat or something, and darted off into the weeds. A wizard? Kastor hadn't mentioned that this Stiaan person was a wizard; but then, he hadn't mentioned much at all.
Kastor inhaled sharply as the white-haired man stepped closer. His hands went white-knuckled on the railing. He muttered something in his barbarian lingo, then whirled and went pelting down the stairs. Jos watched in confusion as Kastor took the stairs three at a time, vaulting the turnings, and went at Stiaan as if planning to kill him, but instead tenderly took the child into his own arms and started slowly back up.
The child -- a little boy, dressed in fine dark blue clothes with red embroidery -- looked exactly like Kastor. Like a six- or eight-year-old version of him. Jos reflected that Kastor wasn't quite too young to have a kid that age, if he'd started early. The boy was sleeping soundly, with a shiny drool trail coming out of the corner of his open mouth and his little pale hands fisted on his chest. Stiaan followed patiently behind, carrying what looked like a miniature walking stick. When they were all on the balcony together, Kas ran out of motive power and stood blankly looking down at the child in his arms. Stiaan smiled past him at Jos, acknowleging Jos's expression of bemusement.
Despite his white hair, which was cut short like an infantryman's, Stiaan was not old. Not by a long shot. He looked to be Kas's age or younger, and so ridiculously handsome that Kas's fine-featured face looked coarse beside him. He was just as tall and pale as Kas, and a little thinner. He was dressed like a working man, but there was a band of some white stuff across his forehead with gold and a sparkling little jewel set in it. He didn't really look like a wizard, but more like one than like anything else Jos had a name for. Setting the little cane against the wall, he gave Jos a cordial nod, then lightly touched Kastor's shoulder.
"He's sleeping soundly enough," Stiaan said, "but he'll still be more comfortable indoors."
"Oh. Yes." Kastor looked up as if he'd forgotten there was anyone else about.
Jos opened the door for him. Kas went inside for a while, then came back out without the little boy. The northerner took a deep breath, steadying himself, then speared his dead lover's brother with a stare like an icicle. "If your meddling's done him any harm, we'll finish what we started last spring, and this time Mikah won't be there to pull me off you."
Stiaan winced. "That won't be necessary, I assure you. He'll wake in the ordinary manner when he's slept enough. He'd exhausted himself, he was so excited, and he couldn't settle down, so I just bespelled him a little calm. That's all."
"It better be." Kas glanced back at the door to his apartment, and a lost expression passed over his face. "I certainly never expected to see you turn up on my doorstep with Charis in tow. Would you like to tell me how the hell this happened?"
"Of course, but I don't want to be rude to your guest. Or is he a roommate?" Stiaan gave Jos a pasted-on smile, offering his hand. "My name is Stiaan. It's a pleasure to meet you."
Nice manners, indeed. Jos clasped his hand willingly enough; the insincerity of his smile looked to be a less skilled version of Kastor's cheerful mask, rather than dislike. These fellows had some talking to do, that much was obvious. "Josef Carter, and I'd just dropped by for a drink. I think I'll be heading out now, before it gets too dark to see my way. You like beer?"
"Beer? Yes, I suppose I do."
Jos took out two more bottles. "Got to lighten the box a bit." He offered the beer to Kastor, nudging him when he didn't seem to notice. "Hey, airhead, I'm handing you two free bottles of Black Star, where's my thank-you?"
"Oh. Thanks, Jos. That's, um."
"Yeah, I get it. Was that your little brother or your son?"
"Fine-looking kid. Bring him by later if you get some time, all right?" He hoisted the crate. As he passed Stiaan, the fellow gave him a look of intense gratitude, and Jos was pretty sure it wasn't for the beer.
Yeah, he thought as he went around the corner, they have some talking to do, all right. If I don't miss my guess, that Stiaan character is planning to have a go at apologizing. It's not going to work. Don't figure they'll kill each other, though, for all Kas was dropping threats. He turned south on Gandry, heading for home. I get the impression those two are a lot alike. End up hating each other's guts or best friends forever. I wonder what the kid has to do with this.
I wonder how the hell Kas managed to have a kid, since he's not interested in women.
Grinning to himself, Jos dropped his speculation. Kas would tell or he wouldn't. All that was certain was that the story would be weird as hell if Jos ever got it out of him.
* * *
After Jos had gone, Kastor stared at Stiaan for a while, brain thrashing like a slack tent rope in a blizzard. Stiaan stared back, looking a little embarrassed. Nothing made the least speck of sense, Kastor didn't know how he was supposed to feel, what he was supposed to do, half disbelieved that any of this was actually happening. It was too odd, Stiaan showing up just when Kastor had been talking about him.
Abruptly Kastor realized that Stiaan was nearly as unclear on protocol as he was, that it was his balcony they were standing on, and that if he took the lead now he would control the situation indefinitely, even though Stiaan could probably smash the whole neighborhood with a flick of his fingers.
"We'll talk out here," Kastor said. He said it in Semnian, a language he was more comfortable with. There were still gaps in his Nestrian vocabulary. "Let Charis sleep. Sit down. Have a beer."
Stiaan nodded. He looked a bit relieved to be told what to do, confirming Kastor's guess. Kastor lit the welcome-lamp beside the door, since it was getting dark now even to immortal eyes. They sat on the boards of the balcony, facing each other warily, trying to look relaxed. Kas sat crosslegged, as usual, but Stiaan knelt: back straight, knees together, like a priest. He removed the cork from his beer bottle with a brush of his fingers; magic. Kastor used a knife, like a normal person. Stiaan took a sip of the beer, betraying neither enjoyment nor dislike. He set the bottle down in front of him and folded his hands.
"I'm sorry to come with so little warning. I've been on my way for a week, so I've no excuse. I simply didn't think of it."
"Warning?" Kastor raised an eyebrow. "You sent that dream?"
"Oh dear. Dreams again. No, I wouldn't invade your sleep, I consider that the rudest of intrusions. I simply sent a sense of my presence as I got into the city. It should have made you think about me visiting you."
"That explains the timing. I was just talking about you when you rode up." He drank beer to steady himself. "Would you like to tell me what the hell you're doing here, and why the hell you've got Charis with you?"
"Let me begin with the child, since that's the less important part."
And there went Kastor's calm. "Excuse me? He's not important?"
"That's not how I meant it. Perhaps I mean secondary? Accidental? In any case, when I was visiting your mother, he asked me to take him to you. I agreed. I was coming to see you already, so it was no trouble. Delightful child. Inquisitive."
"Just like that? You took him away from his mother and his home just because he asked? You irresponsible --"
"Please. I had my reasons. He seemed so lonely. I know what it's like. I didn't know if he'd be less alone with you, but it seemed right to give him the chance."
"Alys will have my head on a pike! Has it occurred to you that you might have just started a war? What if she comes howling over the border with a thousand raiders? Does she even know where he is?"
"I'm sure your mother's divined it by now."
Kastor growled, about to launch into further recriminations, but realized how ridiculous it was for a mortal to be chastising a Mara, and let out a long breath. "Well. Are you going to tell me why you were visiting my mother in the first place?"
Stiaan shifted uncomfortably, and put a fingernail between his teeth. A line appeared between his brows. He avoided Kastor's eyes. It was a very strange thing for an all-powerful immortal to do. Eventually he squared himself and answered. "It's the reason I came to see you. I had a vision, in which you figured prominently. It contained symbols of your Hunter god. I want to know if divine forces are going to be playing with me."
A startled laugh jumped out of Kastor's throat. "You went to her to get a dream interpreted?"
"Mara. You're all insane. Every one."
"You had a dream about me?"
"A waking vision. A powerful one. Don't dismiss it as a dream."
"And I did what?"
"I slew a white stag, and then the stag was me, and I was you, and you had horns."
Patiently, Stiaan repeated his explanation word for word.
"Well, that makes a whole lot of no sense."
"Come now. Your god as much as knocked on my door and handed me his calling card. I want to know what you're up to, and what it has to do with me."
"I have no clue, Stiaan." Kastor chuckled. "I killed you?"
Stiaan drew himself up indignantly."That's not the point."
"Maybe it is. Maybe you're just scared of me. Did that cross your mind?"
"I'll remind you that the last time we fought, it was in a strong damping field."
Though Kastor was aware how dangerous it was to press the issue, he did it anyway; he was a little bit drunk. "That's it, isn't it? You're scared of me! That's the real reason you came here. The dream was just an excuse. You came here to call truce, because otherwise you'd be looking over your shoulder for the rest of your -- well, the rest of my life, which could well be stupidly long. Yeah, it was in a null field. But I brought that null field there, and he's still a friend of mine. For all you know I could whistle him up and come back to finish the job."
"You won't do that." It could have been a threat, but it wasn't. Stiaan studied his hands. "I understand how you feel. I don't seem worth the sacrifice. I don't think I am; he was far better than I can ever be. But you know he made that sacrifice on purpose. You wouldn't invalidate it."
Kastor's belligerence died all at once. Stiaan's remorse was real. He was genuinely grieving for Mikah, genuinely blaming himself, and that was something Kastor hadn't expected to see. "You've changed."
"You saw me at my worst." Stiaan looked up with a trace of an ironic smile. "As I did you. I wasn't quite sure until just now whether your behavior had been a ruse. Of course I should have realized my brother wouldn't have cared so much for you if you were actually the spoiled brat you seemed. I suppose the idea was to keep me focused on you while your comrades took up their positions? Playing on my arrogance was a good idea. The hedzai'ha inflated my self-regard to a ridiculous degree. I..." He let out a fragment of pained laughter. "I don't know whether to thank you or apologize or offer my neck or -- or howl at you for not stopping Mikah from -- but I know he couldn't be stopped once he had the bit in his teeth."
"He couldn't let you go on doing what you were doing."
"Yes. But he ought to have just killed me. There are ways. He knew them." Stiaan sighed; gently, but with a soul-deep weariness that made Kastor suddenly feel that his own grieving had been nothing but a child's incomprehension.
Stiaan really understood what had been lost. No one else could.
It made Kastor angry.
"So are you doing anything to justify your continued existence, Mara? Or are you just moping around feeling sorry for yourself? You're talking like Mikah traded himself for you out of some noble sentiment. I only knew him for a few months, but I know he didn't think like that. He figured you were more useful in the long run than he was. So why are you alive? Why are you here?"
At the beginning of Kastor's speech, Stiaan had looked startled, and gone on being surprised throughout. When his eyes were widened like that, Kastor could see that they were actually blue. He'd thought they were gray before. Maybe they had been. Stiaan gawped at him for a few moments, then said, "You really aren't afraid of me at all, are you?"
"I know what you can do. But afraid? If the truth makes you angry, you're lying to yourself."
"I'm not angry. But that stung like hell, Kastor Auberlane, and you knew it would. Put yourself in my position for a moment, if you can imagine it. Have you never made a mistake you can't repair?"
"A mistake?" Kastor was incredulous. "You call splitting --" He cut himself off, realizing that the secret of Mara origins was far too dangerous to even hint at aloud. "You call that a mistake?"
"That's what it was. An error, a wrong action. What would you call it?"
"Ah." Stiaan thoughtfully bowed his head. "Well, then, imagine that you have committed a crime. Imagine that someone has gone to great lengths to obtain a pardon for you. Imagine trying to pay that back to someone who no longer exists. Well, I have no right to be saying these things, no claim on your sympathy or anyone's. I discuss it with you only in the hope that you can point me in some useful direction. So far I've been hunting those I made and binding their powers, so that they can't perpetrate the sort of mess Nevbelis made. This will take me perhaps three more months, if they don't learn to hide themselves better. After that?" He spread his hands. "What shall I do, perform miracles, break rocks, become a healer, start an orphanage, confess to someone who'll behead me? That's why this dream of the stag concerned me enough to investigate. I loathe the idea of being used by gods, but it may be that I should be grateful."
"How the hell should I know what your damn dreams mean?" Kastor upended his bottle over his mouth, getting the last drops, then picked up Stiaan's, which had been barely touched. "I shouldn't give you drinks. You don't drink them."
Kastor took a swig of that one. He was definitely buzzed now. He blamed that for what he did next. He leaned back against the wall, letting down his guard as if Stiaan were a trusted friend, and said, "I was thirteen the first time I killed somebody. His name was Vhasheda Tamerun."
Stiaan waited. After a moment he said, "'Homecoming Pinetree'? That's a funny name."
"I don't know why I'm telling you this. I'm just in a confiding mood tonight, I talked Jos's ear off too. Listen, it's a sordid story, it's gritty. I've got a lot of those. So I was thirteen, and I'd just figured out what I wanted to do with the boys I'd been panting after since I was ten or so. I mean I'd just gotten laid for the first time, the first through fourth time, with some Tamerun herder's kid, I forget his name. Anyway, this fellow Vhasheda found out about it somehow. He thought he was being subtle, and I guess for my age he was, though I think he was about eighteen or twenty so I don't know what his excuse was. And being the snotty little thing I was, I acted all worldly-wise, pretended I knew what he was talking about. I thought this was a flirtation. So I was pretty surprised when he bent me over a saddle and banged the sense out of me."
"He raped you?" Stiaan looked as if he was trying to be horrified but wasn't quite sure how it was done.
Kastor chuckled. "No, but that's kind of the crux of things, because he thought he had. I was just a little affronted, not being ready for it. With the other kid it was all, you know, external. So I hollered and squirmed, and when it was over I pointed out some scrapes and bruises, and called him some names. And I thought we were having a lovers' quarrel. He thought he'd raped me, and he thought I was threatening to tell, and so he decided he had to get rid of me. Pulled his knife right there and went for me." Kastor waved vaguely. "Scuffle, squawking, little Kas gets a lucky shot. Vhasheda looks down at my knife in his heart and goes, 'You're not serious!' and then falls over. Authorities grab me, clan council has the shaman examine my poor abused backside, they declare I'd been raped and it was a sanctified revenge killing." He shrugged. "And I let them. I could've said: Actually, if I'd been paying more attention, if I'd talked sense instead of throwing a tantrum, he wouldn't have died. But I played along. Boo hoo, I'm so defiled."
He considered his beer, but set it down without drinking. Suddenly his pathetic braid annoyed him; he yanked the string off and shoved his hands through his hair. It fell around his face like blinders on a cart horse, which seemed to make it easier to think clearly. He continued, "Jos told me some long story tonight that didn't have a moral, and I thought that was kind of a gyp. So this one's got a punchline. Right after it happened, I hated myself. I mean, loathed myself, like I wished there were two of me so we could kick the living shit out of each other. I kept thinking, if only I'd been plainer, if only I'd asked outright, if only I'd done this or said that, then he wouldn't have died. I resolved never to speak unless -- well, all right, I was thirteen, I resolved never to speak again ever ever. But once I got past that drama, I decided never to speak unless I was damn sure what I was saying. And that one stuck. People got to calling me duarban." He flashed a grin, knowing Stiaan couldn't see it.
"Bigmouth?" Stiaan was confused.
"You've never heard of naming someone by his opposite? You, they might call Bull, or Crow."
"Oh. Yes, that's amusing. But go on."
"The less you talk, the more you think. Eventually I was able to think through the whole thing without getting emotional about it. And you know what I realized?" He looked up, to see Stiaan watching him in fascination. "I realized Vhasheda needed killing."
The Mara frowned. "You're saying you weren't guilty?"
"Oh no, I was guilty as a dog full of chicken. What I did was manslaughter, if not murder, and I encouraged the shaman and council in their assumptions, which was perjury. The moral of this story is, that didn't change the fact that Vhasheda was a fucking child molester. He thought it was rape, and he did it anyway. And then he decided to hide his guilt in a shallow grave. He needed killing. I put my hair up in a warrior's tail and forgave myself."
"Ah." Stiaan waited patiently to be told how this pertained to his situation.
Kastor let him stew for a minute, then gave in and answered the unspoken question. "You did a hell of a lot of damage. The destruction far outweighed the creation. But there was creation. Something came out of it."
"You mean my vishira? My new ones?"
"Right. So how are you going to handle that? You going to sweep them under the rug? I'm sure you can think of some use for them. If nothing else, they're decorative. Hire them out as artists' models. Start an escort service."
Stiaan gave a startled bit of laughter. Kastor grinned, confirming that it was meant to be funny, that it was all right to laugh. Suddenly Stiaan was laughing in earnest, and he had the most wonderful laugh Kastor had ever heard. It was absolutely artless, completely uncontrolled. Though Stiaan's speaking voice -- and the carefully modulated scornful laugh he'd had when the demon had gripped him -- was smooth and rich, this laugh wrecked it in all sorts of odd ways, cracking and whooping, and his too-perfect face went scrunchy and red, and he looked for all the world like a mischevious little kid.
Watching this, Kastor felt something inside himself that had been knotted for months suddenly relax. The relief was dizzying. He didn't have to hate Stiaan. Mikah had saved Stiaan for a reason, had loved him more than life, and Mikah had not been a fool. Kastor understood that he had been hiding from himself, all this time, a fear that Mikah had failed, been unmade for nothing. It had been an unworthy fear, and Kastor was glad to be rid of it.
With some vague idea of sharing the joy, he said, "You have a nice laugh."
Stiaan had been winding down. Now he stopped altogether. "I fear I don't have a right to laugh. Though it felt good, and I thank you."
"A right to laugh? Man, you have some weird ideas about rights and obligations. Who gives a shit if you laugh? What's that got to do with anything? It doesn't matter what you feel, just what you do. You go around beating up on yourself, you're going to do everything wrong anyway."
"Are you drunk?"
"Yes, thank you for asking."
"A prophet of the grape."
"Beer," Kastor corrected, "is made from barley."
Stiaan peered at him quizically. "Excuse me if this another of my 'weird ideas', but... have we stopped being enemies?"
"Looks like it. At least, I don't seem to hate you."
"Nor I you."
"Then let's have a truce, and there's my hand on it."
"With pleasure." They clasped hands.
"And now," Kastor said, "I'm fading, so you should probably bugger off." He knew he should offer Stiaan a place to stay, if only on his floor. But for all this new amity, he really didn't want to wake up hung over and see Stiaan's face in the morning. Not with Charis to deal with at the same time.
The Mara didn't seem to notice the discourtesy. "I'll be on my way, then. I apologize for any inconvenience I've caused by bringing Charis here. When he wakes, please convey my affection. He was a pleasant traveling companion."
Kastor nodded. Stiaan waved, and started for the stairs. He paused at the end of the walkway, though, and came back.
"Pardon me," he said hesitantly, "but I have one more thing to ask you."
"Fire away," Kastor said, trying not to show that he was impatient to be alone.
"Mikah said you were a poet. Is that true?"
"I write a bit."
"Did you... you wouldn't happen to have composed anything like an elegy?"
"Yes. I did."
"I thought you might. Might I ask you for a copy?"
"Um..." Kastor thought of the mourning plainsong he'd written, how awkward and raw and true it was, and the things it said about himself, and he imagined writing it out for Stiaan and giving it to him. He shook his head. "Maybe some other time."
Though his face showed his disappointment, Stiaan gave a courtly bow and left without another word.
Kastor listened to his footsteps, but didn't watch to see where he went. He took up the cane Stiaan had leaned on the wall, turning it over in his hands. He sat there breathing the night air for a time, letting this experience settle before going on to the next one.
So my enemy is my friend now. Well, not quite friend. And to tell the truth, he wasn't exactly an enemy before, because demon-ridden Stiaan was a very different person. I should have trusted all along that Mikah's judgement was right. Hunter's Horns, he has a fantastic laugh! Makes me want to act like an idiot to make him laugh some more. I sure hope I'm not getting a crush on him, that would be inappropriate. I don't think I am, though. I think I'm just glad he turned out to be -- well, let's be honest, kind of a martyr, which is a type of selfishness, but in general a very sweet and humble guy. And he likes Charis, which is a mark in his favor.
Oh gods -- Charis. Charis is here in my room. Oh mercy, what the hell am I supposed to do now?
He rubbed his eyes hard, willing himself toward sobriety. It occurred to him that he'd better make his decisions about Charis's presence before going inside where the boy was sleeping; he'd think more clearly that way. When he'd first recognized his son's face pressed against Stiaan's shirt, his brain had shut off completely, and he expected he'd get scattered again when he went in to gaze at the small form curled in his bed. Better to consider this with as little sentimentality as possible first.
Alys was not going to take this lying down. She might well be on her way already. She would come to take Charis from him, certainly, sooner or later. Or send an agent. No, she'd probably come herself. He wondered if Stiaan had ever gotten between a mother bear and her cub before. Kastor had once, and only the fact that the bear's first swat had knocked him down a cliff had saved him. Anyone who wasn't half-immortal -- or, as he'd thought at the time, half demon -- would have been killed by that one blow of a sledgehammer paw. Now half of Nestria was between Alys and her child, and he winced to think who she'd swat out of the way as she came south.
It had probably never crossed Stiaan's mind that the Kyri Queen would react that way. Mara had no parents. Those who sired children apparently abandoned them, and Stiaan personally had never touched a woman, or so he claimed. He'd have no clue what it did to people.
For the first time in many years, Kastor let himself remember Charis's birth. Just sixteen at the time, Kastor had been treated like a hindrance through the whole mysterious female process of getting ready for the birth. He'd been the queen's pretty pet, the council's high-maintenance puppet, a symbolic item that hadn't been working quite right recently, and no one behaved as if he had any right to be there. When he hovered around the birthing tent, blanching at every groan and howl, he was showered with reassurances that the baby wasn't all that early, that his wife was strong and would be fine. But he hadn't been worried about Alys. He'd been afire with terror and longing for this first thing he had ever made, this first way he had ever improved the world. This child that was his. The infant's first cry had buckled his knees. Then he'd shaken off those who'd caught him, charged in past the guards that were supposed to keep him out, and he'd seen the baby: red, wrinkled, slimy, unquestionably real.
Alys had shown him a weary smile, and he'd thought, I'm a part of it now; of my family, my clan, my people; I'm connected. I'm a father.
There had been a lot of fussing then, because Charis was early and weak, and a rotation of shamans had been commanded to make certain he survived. Kastor, pushed aside again, hadn't been worried, though he'd feigned it to keep people from thinking he didn't care. He just knew, without a doubt, that Charis would live and grow strong. There was no other way for things to be.
And then, the whispering started. The child had been born wrong somehow. The seclusion of mother and baby, mandated by the healers, was said to be an attempt to hide the child's deformity. Which it wasn't, Alys hadn't been ashamed of him yet, but the slight lopsidedness of his body, the right arm and leg just a little smaller than the left, was enough to start the rumors. The rumors grew quickly. The tale of Kastor's half-demon birth -- which had elicited a kind of shivery admiration before -- fed the stories, until the whole clan was convinced that Charis was slit-eyed or winged, had a tail, had a snake's tongue. The shamans were said to be trying to exorcise the evil from the child, rather than simply countering the effects of his early birth.
Alys had been bound to respond. Gethanes had been overthrown for less. Someone had to take the blame.
When he'd heard the sentence of exile pronounced, Kastor had been looking into his son's eyes, the baby staring back from Alys's arms like a fragment of his soul amputated from him. He'd been unable to stop looking. They'd had to pull him backwards out of the council tent...
He took a deep breath, returning to the present. Whatever happened, he was being given a chance to meet his son as a person, away from recriminations and public opinion. That was a blessing he'd never expected. This spring, when he'd been captured by the Arthane's circle and brought to stand trial for the crime of returning from exile, he'd seen Charis twice. The second time, the boy had spoken to him, had touched his cheek -- not really a gesture of affection so much as an exploratory contact, but that hand had been so warm and soft and small... it had healed him.
Tonight he'd held that child in his arms, smelled his breath. There would be drool spots on his pillow. And in the morning, they would speak. Last time, Charis had seemed eerily solemn, but the conversation had been so brief, and under such odd circumstances, that it couldn't illuminate anything. Why had Charis asked to come here? Was he regretting being taken seriously? Would he want to go home? Or was he running away from his mother, would he want to stay?
It didn't matter, Kastor realized. Whatever Charis wanted or planned, whatever Kastor felt about it, the boy would have to go home. His presence was personal, but his absence was political.
"Mother, I'm bringing him home." It was too much to ask, that Nhedra be scrying for him at this very moment, but he thought she might be able to divine his intention. If Alys hadn't been hard on Stiaan's heels the whole time -- and the Mara would certainly not have missed that -- then Nhedra must have been unable to scry the circumstances of Charis's vanishment. Stiaan must have cloaked them. Now, out of Stiaan's care, Charis would suddenly reappear to his grandmother's spirit sight. "Mother, tell Alys not to be hasty. I'm bringing him home. He'll be safe with me, I promise."
He blew out the welcome lamp and went inside. He'd left a light burning low on the shelf by the door. Now he brought it over to the windowsill over his mattress, so he could look at his son. The boy had shifted since Kastor had laid him down, was now curled up in a ball with something in his arms... Kastor looked closer, and smiled to see that it was the black-and-silver book he used for a journal. He must have left it on the bed last time he'd written in it, and Charis had found it. Had he perhaps woken and tried to read it? The notes and poems in there wouldn't make much sense to him. Some of them weren't even in Kyri. Still, the thought was somehow warming.
Charis looked healthier than last time Kastor had seen him. There was a vital flush under the white skin Kastor had bequeathed him. It must have been hard for him, looking so different from other children. It had been hard enough for Kastor, who'd been able to escape into the wild; how much more must it sting when one's every move was a public act? Even though his deformity kept him from being his mother's heir, he was still a prince.
That deformity was barely noticeable when the boy was asleep. Only the fact that he'd brought a cane indicated that he was anything but perfect. Was he angry about that imperfection? Did he blame Kastor, as Alys did? Would he have come here if he had?
Kastor took off his boots and sat on the edge of the mattress, leaning back against the wall. He put his hand on his son's head, feeling the unbelievable softness of a child's skin and hair for almost the first time in his life. Charis smiled a little in his sleep, and squirmed closer, pressing his forehead against Kastor's knee.
"I wish I could keep you with me," Kastor murmured. "I wish to all the gods I could."