Midwinter eve came, and Kastor was twenty-five.
"Happy birthday, me," he said to his lonely campfire. He toasted the occasion with the bottle of brandy he'd bought in Aden for the occasion. "Happy new year."
Aunethan gave a curious snuffle, having grown accustomed to his master's silence these past few days. Kastor toasted him as well.
"Happy new year, horse."
Then, with mild regret, he corked the bottle and put it away. He didn't dare get drunk. He didn't think he'd encounter any of the nasties Irina had warned him about, since he'd cut west on the river road to Lake Aden and gone south from there instead of retracing his steps. It added about four days to the trip, but he hoped it would keep him from running into anything that needed killing. Still, he just knew that the minute he let his guard down, something would pop out of the bushes and try to bite his head off.
He would've liked the comfort of alcoholic oblivion. Birthdays had been a dismal occasion for a long time now, but this one was shaping up to be special. He couldn't help remembering Midwinter festivals from his childhood, and placing Charis in the scene. Bonfires, feasting, dancing late into the night, sweets and gifts. Sleepy protests that one wasn't tired, stumbledrunk on fatigue, allowed to stay up until one's eyelids could no longer be propped open. Then to bed, with a sprig of juniper under the pillow to bring good-luck dreams.
He'd passed a juniper tree earlier in the day, and in a moment of sentimental weakness had cut a twig from it. Now he twirled the twig in his hands, smelling the pungent sap, remembering.
What was bothering him, he concluded, wasn't really nostalgia. Nor was it that he wasn't able to share this holiday with his son, though he wished he could. It wasn't even that he was alone tonight. It was that he couldn't imagine any other way to be. That seemed wrong, somehow. As if his time with Charis had been wasted. Shouldn't he have learned to want family? All he'd learned, it seemed, was that he could get along with a child pretty well provided it was temporary.
As for anyone else he might want to be with right now -- well, who was there? His mother? She'd always been too busy with the ceremony of the torches to celebrate, and this year would be no exception. Besides, though he loved her, she wasn't particularly good company. Alys? He snorted at the thought. He hadn't spent the holiday with her when she'd been his wife; they'd been married after the festival, and parted before it came round again. That, he supposed, had been the worst Midwinter, wandering in foreign lands with his head full of worries for his infant son, born early and sick, still too small and too weak when Kastor had been forced to leave him. That night, he had gotten drunk. Stinking, rolling drunk. He didn't really remember it.
He tried to imagine what it would have been like if Mikah had survived to celebrate with him tonight. He couldn't. Their time together had been too intense, too rushed, there'd been nothing of comfort or ease in it. Nothing like the rhythm of a normal life, seasons and holidays, eating and sleeping, work and play. He couldn't imagine sharing any of that with Mikah. Irina had been right; it wouldn't have lasted. He could still summon to mind the taste of Mikah's lips, but couldn't say what sort of house they'd have had if they'd lived together. He didn't know Mikah's favorite color, favorite food, favorite song. Didn't know whether he'd liked the theater, or the sea, whether he read for pleasure, whether he craved oranges out of season. Perhaps, if there had been time to learn these things... but there hadn't. Their love had been like something in an old ballad, all wooing and winning and then the song was over. No mention in those songs of the million little things that life was made of: cooking, bad jokes, lost socks. Nothing but passion. That wasn't enough.
But still, he missed Mikah so much it brought a physical pain in his chest. It hurt even more to know that their relationship had been one small exception; he had nothing to look forward to but the life he'd made for himself, alone, good at nothing but skulking around, going without sleep, and killing things.
Was this all life would be for him? Solitude and blood?
His eyes had been at half-mast, chin on his fist, but now he sat up straight, glaring into the empty woods across the fire from him, the space which contained no one. "Like hell," he said out loud. "Like hell I'll slump around in self-pity for the rest of my life. If you don't like it, change it -- any fool can do that. Right, horse?"
Aunethan, asleep on his hooves, wasn't paying attention, but that was all right. Kastor crushed his juniper sprig in his fingers, inhaling the sharp scent of it, then threw it on the dying fire. He didn't need good-luck dreams. What he needed was -- well, a charm against moping would be choice, but failing that -- a plan.
"And here's the plan," he told his sleeping horse. "I'm going to learn to act tame. I'm going to figure out what it is about me that makes people nervous, and I'll learn how to hide it. I'm going to be friendly and -- and cheerful. I'm pretty sure I can get the hang of that. That's how people make friends, right? You smile at everyone and some of them stick? And, well, if that doesn't work out, at least I'll know, so I won't spend next Midwinter whining about how lonely I am. I'll either be with friends, or I'll be alone on purpose."
He sat back, leaning against a tree, wrapped up in his cloak in preparation for sleep. Tried to visualize it: a night like tonight, but in the company of -- whoever. Someone like Jennet Tanner. Someone like Jos. People who could laugh and pass a bottle around, talk about nothing, not mind his presence, and not need him too much. It was possible. Getting there would take some doing, but he had time.
"Twenty-five's not old," he said to the silence. "I can still learn."
The silence seemed to answer: Of course you can, you silly ass, and how did it take you so long to think of it?
* * *
The valley looked just as it had when he'd last seen it, except that the snow was deeper, and still falling. He stood high on the slope, scanning the valley floor below. He was somewhere above where the demon had attacked him before, but he saw no sign of it. This time, though, he knew that didn't mean it wasn't there.
He'd left Aunethan with the same farm family that had cared for his rented mount before. Their reaction had been priceless. Torn between persuading him not to throw away his life on a second try and hoping he'd die and leave them the horse, they'd chattered in anxious circles around the subject until he'd laughed out loud. That had offended them. The matter was deadly serious to them.
Well, it wasn't exactly a joke to him, but he was in a better mood this time. Last time, he'd come at it with a haphazard sort of attitude, trying his luck, as if the fight were a coin toss. Now he was determined to win, whatever it took. The demon was just an obstacle standing between him and a thousand ninety pieces of gold. He had plans. This demon was just going to have to get out of the way. He wasn't about to go strolling down there hoping to trip over it, either. Last time, he'd acted like some musclebrained sellsword, and that was a plain waste of intelligence, since he knew damn well he was smarter than that. The first order of business was to figure out how the demon had snuck up on him before.
Below, the gently sloping meadow was smooth with snow, acre upon acre of virgin white. No tracks, and no hollows or hidden places where the creature might lair. But he knew from his reading that a demon bound in the material plane had to stay material until banished. It had a body; it took up space. He should have seen it last time, he'd been looking all around himself, right out in the middle of a snowy plain -- a big black demon should have been apparent. Could it have made itself invisible?
Spells of invisibility were a staple of fairytales, but he'd never heard of anyone actually managing one. Maybe demons were different. Their substance was fairly arbitrary, after all. Who was to say they couldn't become transparent?
Or just white. He smacked himself upside the head for overlooking it. All it would have to do was change color. He'd been hunting it on a sunny day, and snow glare would have melted anything pale into the general glow, especially if it held still and waited for him to stumble into reach. He'd been looking for tracks and hadn't seen any, but pass-without-trace spells definitely existed, unlike invisibility.
Right, workable theory. That didn't mean it was necessarily correct. He looked for other explanations. He was willing to stand here on the mountainside and ponder all day if he had to; it wasn't that cold.
Could the demon have hidden under the snow and jumped up when he came near? No, the snow hadn't been deep enough to hide it, only four or six inches. He supposed he couldn't entirely dismiss invisibility, or at least transparency. Could it have been hidden by illusion? Possibly. There were two kinds of illusion, the kind that created external images and the kind that planted those images in the mind of the target. The latter were easier and more effective except when dealing with large crowds. In fact, now that he thought of it, he remembered reading about a spell called 'poor man's invisibility' that was actually a mental command to ignore the caster.
He'd been sort of distracted when the demon had ambushed him. It hadn't seemed unusual at the time, but when had he ever let himself get lost in thought when he was expecting a fight?
Giving the subject another half hour or so, he finally concluded that those were all the possibilities. All he could do, then, was focus hard, and use sound and smell more than sight to alert him to his quarry. He would assume, from the moment he set foot on level ground, that it was coming toward him from any open direction. And when it arrived? Even the extra few seconds of warning a sound or sight might give him wouldn't be enough to tip the balance in his favor.
The thing was huge, though. He replayed the fight in his mind's eye, remembering its speed and reach. It still had the advantage.
But even with its height and the length of its arms, it couldn't quite have the reach of a long weapon. For instance, a pair of longswords. He'd been looking at it the wrong way, as a beast, not a combatant. If he considered its clawed hands as weapons -- strange weapons, to be sure -- then he could parry them, even turn their movements to his advantage. He could flick his blades' points faster than the demon could swat at him. The fact that it had four hands was balanced by the fact that they, unlike his swords, bled, could be disabled or even removed.
So if he discarded the idea of ending the fight quickly, ignored lethal targets in favor of crippling his opponent's offensive ability, and recognized that the demon, more like a man than a beast in thought, could choose not to react to pain...
Yes, that would work. He ran through his conclusions one more time. Then he got ready. He divested himself of anything that might slow him down: pack, cloak, scarf, bow and quiver. Ate half a biscuit and drank a little water. Wetted his hair with snow and tied his tail tight, making sure there was nothing left out to blow in his eyes. Emptied his bladder, stretched, cracked his knuckles, tightened the buckles on his boots, checked over his armor.
He assumed the demon already knew he was here. It was probably watching him. So a careful approach would only give it time to get ready. He drew his swords and, with a howl to keep his courage up, took the slope at a run, pelting downhill in an unpredictable curving leap from rock to rock.
This time, he saw it. He felt the tug on his mind, fought and broke it, and there was the demon, running at him from a full fifty yards off. So it had been using illusion after all. He felt his face stretch into a feral grin as he shuffled a little standing space in the calf-deep snow, and then it was on him.
From the first second, he knew it would go differently this time. He hadn't let it get so close in the first place, and was holding it well back, scratching up its arms just as it had scratched his before. He didn't have nearly the mobility he would have liked, due to the depth of the snow, but he couldn't have competed with it in speed anyway. Instead he focused on his defenses, using bits and scraps of remembered forms, improvising where he had to. In the back of his mind he chanted the names of defensive forms as he cannibalized them for parts. Shooting star. Birds and arrows. Riverman's journey. Blade flower. Iron gull. Plains and mountains. The demon couldn't get anywhere near him, and its clawed limbs were dripping with milky blood, shreds of oil-black skin dangling, digits missing. Soon it would have no means of attack but its easily avoided teeth, and he would destroy it.
It saw doom coming, and it changed its method. With a roar that blasted his face with charnel breath, it leapt, throwing itself upon him. Kastor saw, in the split-second before impact, how this would play out: he'd skewer it as it came, but then its teeth would crush his skull; it would survive the injury, but he wouldn't. And there was nothing he could do to stop it. The unfairness of his impending death hit him in a wave of furnace heat, burst out of him in a bellow of rage.
Then the rage was in charge, and he was nowhere near it.
The feaheledd took his body and twisted it in an impossible contortion, ignoring ripping muscle and straining joints, using the impact between swords' points and demon's body for leverage to shove him aside. The demon's jaws snapped just beside his ear, the clack of teeth echoing in his head. It took a few hairs from his tail, but none of his flesh. He rolled clear, and somehow in the process kicked a gob of wet snow into the demon's eyes to blind it. One of his swords took it behind the knee, slicing through tendon; the other speared a descending claw, and with a twist and jerk snapped the bones of the demon's wrist.
Both of them were emitting a continual roar now, both gripped in fury. The demon had a blood-madness of its own, it seemed, for it now abandoned any pretense at protecting itself, and took terrible wounds without flinching as it flung itself at him over and over. Both were drenched in blood, caked with snow, steaming. From somewhere high and deep and distant from this, Kastor reflected that it was like a clash between elements, with nothing sentient directing it. A battle of beasts, pure in murder, without intelligence. He was not afraid. He trusted his insanity.
Streaks of blood flew, red and white, melting the snow where they spattered. Time went small, a stuttering series of fragmentary moments, unconnected. Pain was no different in importance from cold air on sweating skin, the catch of snow on heels, the stress on muscles as blade bit bone.
It meant little to him when the demon's bellows turned to shrieks. He kept chopping until there was nothing before him to cut.
When the last resistance collapsed, leaving him unopposed, he was briefly disappointed, caught himself casting around for something else to kill. The sight of churned and bloodied snow surrounded by vast pristine nothing restored reason. Then came the tiredness. Then came all the aches. He stared at the shredded mess he'd made of the demon, and had to lean on his swords to stay upright. Everything hurt.
He was beginning to sort his injuries by seriousness when a pressure on his sorcerous senses alerted him to some kind of magic happening nearby. He cast about for it -- it was everywhere, nowhere -- no, it was above him. With a groan for the torn muscles the motion twisted, he threw himself out from under the spark of power, raising his left-hand sword, that arm still being mostly functional. Snow grabbed his ankle and dumped him on his back.
As he struggled to rise, there was a sound like muffled thunder, and a sphere of mist bloomed in the air twenty feet up. A breath of wind brushed his face, oddly warm, green-smelling. A twist of something dark scribbled itself in the middle of the dissipating bubble of fog. It hung there for a crazy moment, paling like land coming out from a cloud's shadow; then all at once it was a man-shape, and falling. A puzzled yelp was cut off as the figure fell spreadeagled into snow, sending up a cloud of sparkling powder.
Kastor got his feet under him, though he was unsteady. The fallen man was slower to rise. It took him several stages to get upright. He slapped at his brown and green clothing, and shook snow from his silvery hair, before turning around.
Kastor's attempt at the name came out as a gurgle. He spat pink onto the trampled ground and tried again. "Stiaan. Stylish entrance." He had to spit again; it was brighter red this time. "Original. Irony and slapstick; should appeal to most audiences."
The silver Mara shot a disgusted look at his imprint in the snow. "Too high. Rather, a quarter mile too far east. I meant to come in on that ridge, in case there was still fighting." He limped over to the dismembered demon, prodded it with his toe. "You could have just asked me to banish it."
"You're a little late," Kastor said thickly. "If you were rushing to my rescue, I mean. If I'd needed rescuing, I'd already be dead."
"Rescue? If I meant to rescue anyone, it was the demon! For all I knew, Rema was back already and trying to capture the lock before going after the key again."
Kastor blinked. "What?"
Scratching the back of his neck, Stiaan gave that question a moment of deep thought. At last he said, "I'm an idiot, have I mentioned that to you recently? Of course you didn't know I was the one who put that demon there."
"To guard Mikah's storehouse. I've no idea what's in there, but I didn't like to think of it falling into the wrong hands."
"You put this here?"
"That's what I just said."
Kastor pointed, just to be clear. "That. Here. You."
"Do you need to sit down? You're bleeding rather impressively."
"Your damned watchdog nearly killed me!"
"I suppose you stood your ground. I gave it strict orders not to chase anyone who ran away. If I'd known you wanted to get in, I would've made it let you through." He frowned at the steaming black corpse. "I'm impressed, though. You're either very lucky or very skilled. That was a third-order demon. Did you know that? Did you even know there are different kinds of demons? Are you sure you don't want to sit down?"
"No. No, didn't know, and no, not sure, and I think I will, thank you..." Kastor's vision had begun to sparkle and spot at the edges, and now it went entirely blotty. He thought he heard Stiaan trying to ask him another stupid question, but he couldn't be bothered to answer, as he was too busy falling down a deep hole into darkness.
Consciousness returned on a swell of nausea. Kastor kept his eyes closed, fearing that sight would just feed the vertigo. He felt that Stiaan was nearby, so he asked, "Am I standing up or lying down?"
"You're lying down. Honestly, child, I've no idea how you expect to live to be -- how old are you? I can't judge mortals' ages."
"I just turned twenty-five. My birthday is Midwinter." As he swallowed down another wave of queasiness, he began to feel a bit indignant about Stiaan's tone. "Don't call me child."
"I beg your pardon. And happy birthday."
"If I open my eyes, will I see anything that will make me puke?"
From the sound of it, Stiaan recognized that he was handing Kastor an easy straight line, so Kastor refrained from using it. He pried his eyes open and found himself looking up into Stiaan's face from below. He theorized that his head was pillowed on Stiaan's knees. His back wasn't as cold or wet as it should be, so he must be lying on something other than plain snow; he thought Stiaan had had a cloak when he'd arrived, and didn't now, so maybe that was what was under him. Stiaan was not wearing the angelic crown. Kastor inched a hand up to his own brow, and wasn't surprised to feel the bone circlet there.
"You had your angel heal me again."
"Yes. I'd advise against coming to rely on it, though. While I seem to be developing a habit of appearing at the drop of a pint of blood, so far there have been other factors involved. There might come an instance in which --"
"Blah blah blah. Take your hat back. Help me up."
With a weary smile, Stiaan obeyed. Kastor was dizzy, and swayed a bit when he stood, but was able to stay on his feet. The nausea receded somewhat now that he was upright. Stiaan picked up his cloak, grimaced at the blood stains on it, and threw it over his arm. He didn't look much steadier than Kastor felt.
Kastor abruptly remembered his resolution to smile and be harmless. What would a civilized person say?
"Thanks for the healing, Stiaan. I appreciate it. I'm pretty sure I would've survived without it, but I'd be aching for weeks. Bleeding aside, I think I sprained every damn joint in my body. And I'm sorry I wrecked your demon."
"You didn't know it was mine."
"I'll share the reward money with you, if you want. From the part I'm going to keep, mind you -- I'm sending most of it to my mother."
"Really? How much is the reward?"
Kastor raised an eyebrow. He'd been making a gesture. He hadn't thought money would interest Stiaan. "All told, eleven hundred estas. But I got ten percent down, so there's nine-ninety left. I figure on sending seven-fifty to Mother. Gold's not worth much on the Sei, but she can at least get a new wagon and something decent to pull it."
Stiaan looked sheepish. "Ah. I -- well, this might be good news, or you might be irritated with me -- your money won't make much difference. When I asked her to interpret my dream, I paid her with some jewelry I used to wear when I was, er, less pleasant than I am now. I'm getting rid of all that stuff, you see. So of course I don't want money, though it's kind of you to offer."
"Some jewelry," Kastor echoed blankly.
"She called it a necklace, but it was actually a sort of -- well, too thin for a belt, call it a waist chain -- anyway, unclasped it's about this long." He held his hands apart. "Platinum, with teardrop diamonds. Forty-two of them. Each the size of my little fingernail."
"What do you figure it would fetch in Rilleine?"
"I don't think anyone could afford it, even in a city that big. I hope she has the wit to break it up and sell it link by link. Altogether, perhaps fifty thousand estas."
Kastor gave a low whistle. He thought about his mother being rich. He thought about what it would mean to have the whole of the reward money to himself. He made the mistake of thinking about Stiaan wearing a glittering chain around his waist, and how he'd have to be wearing pretty much nothing else for it to be visible as an ornament, and quickly changed the subject.
"So you set this demon to guard Mikah's storehouse -- I assume that means you know where the door is."
"I can sense it, though I can't make it appear. Would you like to see?"
"It's over that way. You start out, I'll go get your things and catch up with you."
"I can --"
"You're wobbling like an old man, Kastor. You won't get there before I'm back." He forestalled further protest by trudging off across the snow, toward the section of rocky hill where Kastor had left his gear.
Kastor set out in the direction Stiaan had pointed out to him. Picking up his feet and pushing them through the deepening snow was more of an effort than it should have been. I must have lost a lot of blood, he thought. I'm lucky he showed up. I'm damn lucky he's decided to be friendly. If we were still enemies... well, things would be a little different, wouldn't they?
Despite his fatigue, he found he was smiling. The future was looking pretty good. He couldn't remember the last time he'd looked forward to his future and been able to smile about it. He was eager to see what Mikah had kept as souvenirs of a life unimaginably long and strange. His letter had warned that it was mostly worthless junk, but who could tell what an immortal would call junk?
He realized that the reason he hadn't wanted to look at it when he'd first gotten the key was because he'd feared his own reaction to anything of Mikah's. Even once his grief had ceased to be a dangerous pit in his soul that he might fall into, and had subsided to a mere constant ache, he'd been afraid of anything that might make him think too much about the past.
He wasn't afraid anymore. He wasn't sure when that had changed.
He'd walked perhaps a quarter of the length of the valley when Stiaan caught up. The Mara offered his cloak, but kept hold of the rest of his things. The way he shouldered Kastor's pack, it seemed heavier to him than it had been to Kastor before the fight. It seemed as if it shouldn't be possible for a Mara to look so tired. They walked the rest of the way in silence. At last Stiaan pointed at a vertical slab of bare mountainside, its base nested in tangled bushes and grass.
As Kastor went closer, he felt a point of warmth growing in the center of his chest. The key seemed to squirm against his skin, trying to get out. He got it from under his shirt -- which took some digging, since his shirt was under his armor -- and took the chain from around his neck. The key swung oddly, pulling out of plumb, like a magnet yearning toward iron. Kastor let this pulling direct him, dangling the key across the rock face until, with a sucking click, it slotted into some invisible depression at head height and began a complex series of turns back and forth, first one way and then the other, a quarter, half back, all the way around -- Kastor couldn't keep track of the sequence. Just as suddenly, the rock spit the key back out, ejecting it into his hand with force enough to sting. With a grinding sound, a crack appeared on the stone; where there had been solid rock, suddenly there was a separate slab in the shape of an arched door, leaning outward at the top -- he jumped back, lest it fall on him. It didn't fall, though. It sank slowly outward, revealing a dark hollow beyond. The door's inner surface was stepped, and when the slab settled it became a shallow stair leading into the hole.
Kastor stood there for a long time with the key dangling in his hand. Eventually, Stiaan nudged his elbow.
"Aren't you going to go in?"
"Don't rush me. That was the most complicated piece of magic I ever saw. I'm sort of basking."
"Oh. All right. It's just, I'm getting snowed on."
"Me too," Kastor said absently. He put the chain back around his neck. He went up the steps, kicking snow from his boots. The doorway was plenty tall enough, but he ducked anyway, feeling the weight of the mountain overhead. He got the impression of a large space, but couldn't see much. He paused just inside to let his eyes adjust. Before they could, though, light bloomed behind him. He turned to find Stiaan spinning a ball of yellow glow between his hands. The light grew brighter and paler, until it was like a miniature sun. With a word, the Mara sent the light up to hover above them. This revealed an arched roof of natural stone, sort of blobby-looking. The room was hemispherical, and only the floor seemed man-made. At the far end, a disturbingly organic tunnel of the same black stone curved away, like an artery from a heart. All around the walls, boxes and cabinets stood in cluttered disarray.
"Lava bubble," Stiaan said. "This mountain range is volcanic in origin. I suppose Mikah thought, why dig when I can use what's already there? He always liked to do as much as possible with as little as possible, make every resource serve multiple purposes. Sometimes I suspect he was more intelligent than I." He sounded a bit choked.
Kastor didn't answer. He was distracted by something fluttering in the breeze from the door. On one of the cabinets nearest the entrance, there was a piece of paper sitting out, the only object visible that wasn't a container. And he thought he recognized that gray, flecked paper, and the choppy handwriting that covered it.
He went closer, holding down the paper's edge with two fingers to make it stop flapping. His suspicion had been right: this was a page from his old, battered journey-book, the writing on it his own. It was the poem he'd written at Mikah's insistence, as a sort of donation of energy. He'd been so angry when Mikah hadn't wanted to read it. But somehow it was here, in the treasure house. This, he thought, he would take back, just for remembrance's sake.
When he picked it up, something glittered underneath. He gave a short laugh.
"What is it?" Stiaan asked in a hushed voice.
"So that's where my other earring went." He picked up the tiny square diamond by its loop of tarnished silver wire and showed it to Stiaan. "Mate to the one in your crown. He stole this one. That one, I gave him." He took a cheap hoop from his ear and replaced it with the diamond. He considered the thin circle of nickel-silver that he'd removed, wondering if it was even worth keeping. He offered it to Stiaan. "You want this?"
Stiaan looked surprised as he took it. "Thank you."
"Na llar." Kastor looked away, a bit ashamed to be pawning off his garbage on Stiaan. He turned to investigating the trunks and drawers that lined the walls.
The first drawer he opened was divided into compartments, which housed a collection of stuffed bats. The one below it was empty except for some crumbly dust which might have been vegetable in origin. The last drawer in that chest was layered inches deep in keys.
Bemused, he went on to a tall cabinet. This turned out to have nothing in it but a single painting, about two feet square. It seemed meant to be a still life, some flowers in a vase, but it must have been painted by a lunatic in some happy delusion, because the bottom of the vase was halfway up the board, resting on thick glops of white paint, and the flowers shot off in all directions on long looping stems, some of them painted right off the edge. It made Kastor grin.
On top of that cabinet was a lacquered box that contained a mummified cat. And so it went. None of it made sense, little of it was worth anything, but it was all strange enough to make Kastor's head spin.
It was dark outside when Kastor finally worked his way around to the beginning again. He had taken only three things to keep, other than his poem and earring: a bracelet of ancient and barbaric design, heavy slabs of gold set with irregular chunks of carnelian and jade; a black silk jacket embroidered with silver snakey things that might have been dragons, relatively recent since the fabric was still soft; and the painting of the flowers. He liked the painting best. He couldn't look at it without smiling.
Stiaan had been making his own examination of the hoard. Now he came over and looked at Kastor's selections. He took the painting, turning it around, and showed Kastor a mark scratched into the back of the board. It was a circle with a horizontal slash through it, the end of the slash hooked downward.
"Mikah's signature," Stiaan explained.
"He painted this? I should have guessed. It's about the most enthusiastically loony picture I've ever seen. What does that scribble mean?"
"It's the glyph mei. His initial. And, incidentally, the thaumaturgic symbol for change."
Kastor set his finds by the doorway, out of the path of stray blowing snowflakes. He turned his attention to the tunnel. It curved so he couldn't see where it led. "Bring your light?"
"Be careful. I suspect that's where the key serves its real purpose, so unless you want to find out the hard way what it does..."
"I'll keep hold of it," Kastor assured him. With Stiaan's ball of light floating ahead of him, he started down the tunnel.
It looped and curled like the stems of the flowers in the painting. Its movement was generally downward, and he thought it spiralled under itself. In some places it blobbed out into a hollow like the first room; in others, it had apparently been too narrow for comfortable passage, because the stone had been sheared off smooth at a consistent eight foot diameter. This went on for what felt like miles, though Kastor told himself it couldn't have been more than a quarter mile or so. He was beginning to feel a little cramped and nervous, considering turning around, when the tunnel opened out into a dome ten times as large as the first one.
The floor of this cavern was dished, not flat. There didn't seem to be any other exits, no continuation of the tunnel. The room was bare, clean of dust, and had an odd smell, like rotting flowers. Stiaan sent the light up to the top of the dome. They both caught their breath at what this revealed.
In the center of the floor was a spiral pattern thirty yards across, delineated in texture rather than color, darker than the stone it was carved into, black on black. The center of that spiral was somehow difficult to see. When looked at straight on, it was simply a disc of the same carved roughness, but any time the eye moved elsewhere, that circle became something deeper than total blackness, tugging at the mind like an unpleasant task unfinished.
"Well now," Stiaan murmured, breathy with awe. "So that's what you were up to, taa. No wonder you didn't tell me."
"What is it?" Kastor didn't have to be told that the pattern wasn't just a pretty design on the floor.
"It's a Spiral Gate, which -- mind your key, man, do you want to die?"
"Shit!" Kastor barely caught the chain as the clasp gave way; the key was twisting in his hand like a live thing, trying to get at that pattern. He spun away, turning his back on the spiral. Suddenly the mere darkness of the tunnel looked inviting. With one fist clenched around key and chain, the other hand trailing along the wall, he dashed back toward the idea of out.
His heart was banging in his throat at the lack of light and space, but he told himself fiercely that there had been no turnings, that he couldn't help but find his way out. Something in the back of his mind, though, wondered if the rules of space and direction really applied here. Perhaps he'd gone into a different tunnel, somehow, one that looped back on itself, and he'd be running in a circle forever. Just as he was beginning to be certain that was the case, he smelled fresh snow, found flat floor underfoot, and saw the door as a shape of deep blue in the blackness.
A moment later, yellow light swelled in the mouth of the tunnel. The little sun shot out into the storeroom, followed by its maker.
Stiaan looked Kastor up and down, and shook his head in exaggerated disappointment. "You panicked."
"You panicked me. How should I know what's safe? You said something about the key and dying, so I got the key away from there. It seems to have quit squirming now. Unless you have an objection, I'll put it back on."
Kastor examined the clasp, saw the link ring that had bent open, and pinched it closed with his fingernails. He slipped the chain over his head and tucked the key down the front of his armor. "You were saying something about a gate, as I recall."
"Are you all right? You look a little feverish."
"That spiral thing creeped me out, that's all. The way it sort of grabs at the edge of your mind. I didn't like it. What is it?"
"A Spiral Gate. Lore says that there are seven of them in the world. They're passages to the Plane of Mists. The underworld. Death."
Kastor shuddered. "Yeah, that's what it felt like."
"To me, it only felt like a powerful dormant spell. The force it exerted on your mind must have come through the key. Apparently it wants to be used."
Spreading his hand on his breastplate above where the key hid, Kastor scowled. "Well, you can't always have what you want. You hear that, you little metal bastard? Stiaan, tell me the truth -- I'm going to have to drag this thing around for the rest of my life, aren't I? There's nothing safe to do with it."
"I'm afraid you might be right. Once I've finished my immediate task, I can do some research for you."
"I'd appreciate it." It was good to be so easy with Stiaan, so empty of enmity. He felt, somehow, less wary with the Mara than he had been with mortal friends. "I'll owe you a favor."
Stiaan waved off his thanks. He wandered to the opening that looked out on night and swirling snow. He leaned beside it and sighed wearily. "I don't want to have to go back to work tonight. This little detour wore me out."
"Then don't. I'm not. My horse is taken care of, so there's no point going anywhere until morning. I guess I wouldn't mind some company."
Stiaan gave him a strange look. "You mean to sleep here?"
"Sure. Why not? I'm tired, it's out of the weather, what's the problem?" He looked over his shoulder at the dark mouth of the tunnel. "That? It's not like it's going to come up here and get us. Um. Is it?"
"No. It's just... it's just... all his things..." He trailed off, biting his lip, brow furrowing. Turning away, he rested his forehead against the wall by the door.
Kastor waited for him to finish explaining, but he didn't. He just stood there leaning his head against the wall. After a few minutes, he let out a long, jagged breath, and Kastor noticed that his shoulders were shaking a little.
"Are you crying?" Kastor said quietly. "Why are you crying?"
Stiaan rounded on him, face tear-streaked. "Why are you not? You were the last thing he loved, and here you are among all that's left of him, and you're cool as a stone! How can you be like that?"
Startled, Kastor stepped back. "Stiaan, it's not..." He wasn't sure what he meant to say, so he let the sentence die.
"It's not what? It's not manly? It's not the warrior's way? Well, excuse me if I'm not all woody and tough in the middle like you! He was -- all that time --" Covering his face with his hand, Stiaan turned to the wall again.
It was very uncomfortable, watching Stiaan weeping like that. Kastor wasn't sure whether he ought to do something. His instinct was to leave it alone, but he recalled his resolution again. He put a tentative hand on Stiaan's shoulder. "I'm sorry. I wasn't looking down on you or anything. It's just, I've done my crying. You must miss him more than I can imagine."
Sniffling, Stiaan nodded. He pushed his cuff across his eyes. With another shaky sigh, he put his back to the wall and slid down it. Kastor sat beside him. For a while, they didn't speak, just watched the snow blowing in through the door. Apparently speaking had been the right decision. At least, Stiaan had quit sobbing.
After a time, Kastor said, "Tell me about him. About the two of you. What was it like?"
"You... you really want to hear?"
"Yes. Right from the beginning, if you don't mind. Talk all night if you want, I don't care. I've got time."
"I don't. Not really. I have work to do, scrying, binding, it takes a lot of --"
"Sweet mercy, Stiaan, don't you ever rest? What do you do, just spend your power until you collapse, then fill yourself up like an inkwell until you can start again?"
Stiaan nodded bleakly.
"And you've been doing this for how long?"
"Since nine days after Mikah died."
"Well, I'm telling you, take a damn break. You can afford one night to just sit around and talk. All right?"
Giving him a wan smile, Stiaan nodded slightly. "If you put it that way, I suppose you have a point."
"You don't have to talk about Mikah if you don't want. But I sort of get the impression it would help. And, well... I want to know."
It took Stiaan several minutes to mull over this. Finally, he said, "We were made at the same time. It wasn't a Mara who made us. It was a human mage. The process he used was a little different from the one I developed, I think. I remember terrible pain, noise, the sense that everything was dim and drab, that my eyes weren't working properly. The first few hours are blurred. I never erased them, but I still don't remember them properly. The first thing I can bring clearly to mind is being in a cage -- a cage of spells as well as bars -- and there was someone in there with me. He was as frightened as I was, so we leaned on each other, and that seemed to help.
"We were slaves at first, told only what we needed to know in order to do our master's bidding. His magic was crude, though, for all its power, and before too many years had passed we were able to break his binding. We slew him and his servants, and fled into the world to find out what it was like.
"For the first two centuries or so, we were inseperable. Everything we discovered, we discovered together. We were so much alike, we barely needed names. We were in perfect agreement on every subject. One person in two bodies. Eventually we theorized that we'd learn more if we went apart for a time, had different experiences, and then coveyed them to each other. So we parted. When we came back together, at the agreed time and place, after the agreed three years, we clung together like baby monkeys and swore we'd never be parted again. But in time, the idea returned. We tried it again. This time we were calmer about it. We'd begun to be separate people. We'd begun calling each other by name.
"At first we encouraged our differences. After all, the more dissimilar our experiences, the more information there was to share. By the time we noticed that we no longer quite understood each other, it was too late. We were as separate in our minds as mortals are. That was... that was a very sad time. It hurt to look at each other. We went apart for almost a hundred years before we could stand to be together again. After that, we spent more time apart than not.
"But even so, we never lost each other, not really. Sometimes we'd spend years together, travelling, talking, making love --"
"You what?" Kastor broke in. Then he caught himself. "Sorry. Of course you did. There's no blood relation."
"Exactly. You can't evaluate our relationship by mortal standards. One could as easily say we were married as that we were brothers. There's really no word for what we were to each other. In any case, we weren't often lovers. Usually he had someone else, or was going through one of his phases of discontent with the whole concept of sex, or had changed himself into some other form, and I never favored that mode of expression anyway. Mostly we shared our researches. Or what I thought of as researches. Mikah saw it as playing. He was so frustrated with me, with the fact that I didn't see life as a game. 'You're too serious, Naiis,' he'd tell me, and tickle me or throw something at me to try and make me laugh. I found that so irritating." Stiaan smiled sadly.
"Naiis? What's that?"
"A nickname he called me. It means 'forgiven.' Because I was always messing up, you see, and he'd get mad, but then he'd tell me I was forgiven, always forgiven."
"Did you have a nickname for him?"
"I called him taa. It means 'friend'. That doesn't sound very affectionate, I know. It just got to be a habit." He studied the floor. "I'm not always the easiest person to be around, you see. I take things for granted. I thought he'd always be there. Even at the end, when he was ignoring me for decades at a time, I thought it was just a lull. I was hurt, I was furious, but I didn't believe it was forever. I thought sooner or later we'd have a great big fight, and then we'd make up and he'd be my taa again. I was so busy wrecking my life that I wasn't thinking straight, and then suddenly -- the void." He spread his hands with a distressed expression, as if frustrated by the limits of words. "Everything. The foundations of the world. I've been lost since then. I don't know what to do. I don't know who to be. I think I'm making a terrible hash of things, but who's going to tell me? I find myself thinking -- I need to talk to Mikah, he'll set me straight." He dropped his head into his hands. "Do you know what that's like? To -- to lean on something that isn't there?"
"Yeah," Kastor said softly. "I know."
"You told me before that it's my deeds that matter, not my intentions; my remorse is no use to anyone. And you're right, I have to find something to do that will make some use of me. But I've never done that before. I've always felt that the world outside myself was none of my business, better left alone. Is it better for me to try and fail, or should I find some solitary method, perhaps share out wealth or information? How should I know? And if I'm doing it wrong, who's going to point it out to me?"
Kastor knew the question was rhetorical. He hesitated -- then answered it anyway. "I will."
A long pause. Slowly, Stiaan looked up, blinking, confused. "What did you say?"
"I said, I will. If you want. If you need to talk to someone. I can't promise I'll always be sympathetic, because frankly I'm an abrasive self-centered ass, but I do promise to listen. All right?"
Stiaan just stared at him.
Kastor was beginning to regret speaking. He babbled. "I'm not saying I can replace Mikah, or anything like that. I just mean -- and I don't mind your company either -- look, it's no big deal, if you don't want..." He trailed off, as he saw that Stiaan's eyes were tearing up again. He searched his mind frantically for something to say to weeping, while a pair of tears rolled in near-unison down Stiaan's cheeks. All Kastor could manage was: "You cry way too much, you know that?"
Stiaan shook his head slightly. In a cracked voice, he said, "You have no idea what that means to me. I've done you so much harm, and you offer me friendship. It's the greatest gift anyone could have given me."
"Oh." Kastor shrugged, ears burning, wishing Stiaan would quit being so damn emotional about everything. "Well, you know. Happy new year."
That startled a laugh out of Stiaan. The Mara mopped his face dry yet again, starting to smile. "That's right, the solstice just passed, didn't it? And your people give gifts for the occasion. And -- you said you had a birthday as well?"
"Yep. I had a very short party, just me and my horse. Three snorts of brandy and a game of campfire-staring self-pity. Birthdays are kind of no fun for me."
"Did anyone give you gifts?"
"Nope. You don't have to be sad for me, Stiaan, I'm over it."
Stiaan studied his hands. "Would it be all right if...?" He plucked the agate ring from his finger and shoved it at Kastor. "Here. Take it."
Kastor was incredulous. "Seriously?"
"Yes. Go on." He pressed it into Kastor's hand, then looked away.
Kastor was amused to note that the back of Stiaan's neck was going pink. It was really funny, an ancient Mara getting embarrassed by giving someone a birthday present. Kastor examined it curiously. It was smooth silver, set with an oval of moss agate. Not even a semiprecious stone; just a pretty rock. Kastor remembered hunting for agates on the shore of Lake Aden, during his wandering childhood. He'd found a couple this big, but none quite this green. Looking into the irregular bullseye pattern of the stone, he remembered the sound of the surf, the endless gray horizon, the clarity of the cold water, the sense of hugeness from depths where light never reached.
Stiaan had been wearing it on his index finger, but Kastor could barely get it over the knuckle of his third. It looked fine. Not too delicate. He'd never liked rings much because they were either too heavy and got in the way, or looked silly on his big bony hands. This one was just about right.
"I like it," he said. He let his voice show his satisfaction. "I'm going to wear it pretty much all the time, I guess. It won't make too big a lump under my glove."
The immortal glanced up, still pink-faced. "I know it seems... plain."
"I'd feel like an idiot having that stuff. Can you imagine me wearing all that sparkly crap you used to wear? No, this is good. Thank you." He caught Stiaan's eyes and smiled. "I got a birthday present. How about that."
"I'm glad you like it."
He wished he could return the favor. Casting through his mind, he tried to come up with some posession of his that he could stand to give up. But he didn't own anything that wasn't either necessary to survival or priceless with sentimental value. Did he? An idea came to him, and he brightened. He went to his pack where Stiaan had set it when they'd come in, and dug down to where he'd stashed his one extraneous item.
"Here. Happy Midwinter to you." He held out the rabbit skins he'd tanned. They'd come out pretty well, especially considering the way he'd neglected the process. He'd been planning on stitching them to the collar of his cloak, but what the hell. There were other rabbits.
Stiaan turned the furs over in his hands, petting them as if they were live animals. "What is this? It's so soft!" He rubbed one against his cheek.
Kastor laughed. "Rabbit. Tanned 'em myself. That's why they're kind of stained. Warm, though. Not that I guess you care about warm, you being the guy who lives in an ice castle."
"I've let that spell lapse." Stiaan gave a smile unlike any he'd shown before, genuinely happy and startlingly sweet. "Thank you. I'm sure they're very warm." He put the furs away and settled his cloak around his shoulders. He gave a jaw-cracking yawn. "Ah, gods, I've been pushing myself too hard. I'm going to sleep. Do wake me before you go in the morning, won't you?"
"Uh-huh. If you wake up first, do the same for me." Kastor drew his knees up, closing his cloak around him. Out of the wind and wet, it was warm enough. He echoed Stiaan's yawn. He put his chin on his knees and shut his eyes.
When he woke, there was just barely light enough to see by. Standing, he stretched out the kinks, walked around until the numb bits came back to life. His stomach was growling already; if he didn't eat something now, by the time he could reach the village at the foot of the mountain he'd be falling off his horse. He dug through his pack, ignoring the hardtack and salted pork he'd put in for emergencies, until he found a crunched-up paper sack of dried apricots. They were a little linty, but they tasted fine.
Munching those, he squatted on his heels and watched Stiaan sleep. He was a bit surprised the Mara hadn't awakened instantly when he'd started making noise. The immortal was slumped against the wall, chin on his chest, slack hands barely holding his cloak around him. There was a little worry-line between his pale brows, and his mouth turned down. He must really need it, Kastor thought. He's worn out. I thought he was just wobbly from teleporting yesterday, but he still looks like his wagon needs repainting. Must take a lot out of him, what he's been doing. After finishing half the apricots, Kastor reached out and tapped Stiaan's drawn-up knee.
Stiaan woke with a start, drawing a sharp breath and staring around anxiously. He saw Kastor, and a look of dismay came over him, while a hot flush climbed slowly from his neck to his scalp.
Kastor grinned. Apparently Stiaan had been having another one of those dreams. "Here, eat something." He offered the bag. He tried not to let on that he noticed how Stiaan made sure the cloak was covering his lap before reaching for the food.
While Stiaan ate, Kastor went to the door and looked out over snow turquoise with shadow to the sun-tipped peaks beyond. Just barely dawn. His thoughts felt sharp as the edge of that shadow, his emotions simple and free of sentiment. He wasn't the least bit afraid to speak them out loud.
"I'm glad you stayed," he told Stiaan without turning. "You needed that rest, I can tell, and it wasn't enough either."
It took a few minutes for Stiaan to answer. "I suppose I've let myself be driven by guilt, which is dangerous. Though the chance of a vishir contesting my will and winning is very small, the consequences would be disastrous. It might be best if I bring myself to full strength, take the time to center myself, before returning to my task."
"Well, there's that, and there's the fact that you're liable to go batshit if you don't take a holiday."
Stiaan chuckled. "I think that's what I was trying to say."
"I used to grouse at Mikah for saying everything sideways. I guess it's a family trait." Kastor glanced back, to see if he'd been cruel to mention Mikah's name.
"Ah." Though there was pain in this sigh, it was no longer raw. Stiaan had rolled the empty bag into a tight cylinder, and he now began twisting that to shreds. "I wonder," he said slowly, "how much of him there really is in me. I wonder if he loved you for the same things he loved in me. I wonder if he was angry with me, at the end."
"You bet he was," Kastor said easily. "If he hadn't been saying goodbye, I expect he would've ripped you a new one. You know how sarcastic he could be."
"Would he have wanted us to weep for him? It's so strange; I knew him so well, for so very long, but I don't know this. We never thought of ending. We never thought one of us might outlive the other."
Kastor held out a hand, and when Stiaan ignored it he waggled his fingers impatiently. At last Stiaan caught on and let himself be pulled to his feet. Kastor handed him the painting. He settled his pack on his shoulders, pulled his gloves on, and turned up the collar of his cloak.
"Are you leaving now?" Stiaan sounded a bit bewildered.
"I just..." Stiaan glanced back at the room full of junk, and sighed. "I'm too sentimental." He nodded for Kastor to lead.
Once they stood outside, Kastor turned back to see how he was supposed to close the door. It seemed he wouldn't need to do anything, though; the slab of stone was lifting silently into place, unimpeded by the snow that had piled on it overnight. It joined with the rock wall with a slight grating sound, and the seam disappeared. Kastor turned away, struck out with long strides, relishing the way his body warmed and stretched with the exertion. Since there was someone here to share it with, he said it out loud: "Setting out walking on a winter morning is damn near the finest thing there is."
"I'd think, as a mortal, you'd prefer a summer morning. Doesn't the cold bother you? The end of your nose is already pink."
"Summer is more comfortable, but that's what I like winter for. There aren't many pleasures, but the ones there are matter."
"Ah." After a moment Stiaan said it again with more emphasis, as if he'd figured something out. "Ah!"
"Had an insight?"
"I think -- this may well be presumptuous of me, so forgive me if it is. But I think I'm beginning to understand how you can, as you said, do your crying and be done. I'd supposed it was a mortal instinct, something inherent in short-lived creatures, but of course now that I think about it that's ridiculous. Mortals grieve, I've seen them do it, some grow quite unreasonable with it. No, it's you in particular. You don't expect things to continue, you don't feel that pain is an unjust thing. Mikah was a winter morning to you. You never expected him to last."
Kastor nodded slowly. "Yes, I suppose that's how it is."
"It's why you can befriend me, knowing what I've done. You've grasped transience, which I've struggled to understand for four millenia."
He gave a dry laugh. "Don't build me up to some kind of saint, tyr mahar. I'm wise like a fish. It's not like I meditated on that stuff, it's just my nature."
"Clever crow, am I? Please tell me the 'clever' part isn't as much a joke as the 'crow' part."
"Aw, half the time I don't know what the hell's coming out of my mouth."
"Wise like a fish? Is that a saying?"
"Yeah, it's what you say about someone who seems sage but isn't. Usually some circle elder who nods and looks portentious about everything but doesn't have a thought in his head. After all, if silence is wisdom, fish are the wisest creatures on earth."
"That's because you've never spoken to them."
Kastor looked at him sideways, and laughed. "Now you're playing with me."
"Not at all. The magic for speaking to animals is not much different from that used to translate unknown languages. It's just that most animals don't have much to say. Fish, on the whole, are skittish and excitable creatures, and repeat themselves frequently."
"What about horses?"
"Horses, I like. They have personalities and opinions. So do some dogs, though not all, and cats, though most of them are snippy as Chekhani concubines. Of natural birds, only corvids are worth talking to. You may call me tyr mahar as much as you like; I find crows very entertaining."
"I find you very entertaining."
"Then I suppose the nickname will stick. Well, it's been some time since I had a new one. I shall have to think of one for you."
"Will you?" Kastor raised an eyebrow at him. "How come?"
Stiaan looked briefly startled, and then his shoulders slumped. "Oh. Well. When you said -- well, I supposed -- I assumed --"
"Nothing. Never mind."
"No, tell me."
"I'm telling you it's nothing."
"It's obviously something."
"I don't want to forget it! I want to know --"
"Leave it! You're right, there's no reason for me to give you nicknames, just let it lie!"
Kastor slapped himself on the head with a groan of frustration. "I did it again! I don't know what I did but I did it again! Or you did. Whose fuckup is this?"
At that Stiaan stopped walking, so Kastor did too. For a moment they stared at each other in mutual incomprehension. The corner of Stiaan's mouth curled slightly. Kastor felt his lips twitch. In unison they burst out laughing.
"Oh lords and ladies," Stiaan said through his grin. "We're two of a kind, aren't we?"
"I'm afraid so."
"Maybe we should just communicate by grunts and gestures."
"We could make faces."
"Or draw pictures. If a picture's worth a thousand words --" He scuffed a doodle in the snow with his boot. "There you go."
Kastor squinted at it. He shook his head. "We should probably just give up trying to converse."
With a nod, Stiaan started walking. They continued without speaking the rest of the way to the farm where Kastor had left his horse. Kastor thanked the farm family and paid them, and talked to Aunethan a little, but Stiaan didn't say a word. He remained silent while Kastor packed up. Once his hands were freed of the painting, he took a step back with an odd look on his face.
Kastor had thought their silence was a sort of joke. Now he wasn't sure. "You're not leaving. Are you?"
"I thought I was."
"Don't." The word just jumped out. Kastor was surprised at his own vehemence. It seemed to surprise Stiaan as well.
"Why not? I don't understand you. Don't you have to go collect your reward?"
"Yes, but..." Frowning, Kastor tried to figure out what it was he wanted. And whether he had a right to ask, whether a sane and decent person with manners would ask it, whether Stiaan would understand --
Why do I have to make it so complicated?
"I want to come with you," Kastor said.
Stiaan blinked slowly. "Oh."
"Come to Rilleine -- it's only a few days -- and once I have my money, take me with you. I might be helpful. At least I'll be company."
"You can't teleport."
"You shouldn't. Just think if you'd been as far below the ground as you were above it. You're getting sloppy. You're exhausted!"
"Well, but -- but why? Why would you want to --? It's going to be a lot of trouble, very dull, and -- I thought I'd look you up from time to time, I thought that was what you meant about listening -- I'm very bad company, you know."
"Me too," Kastor grinned. "We could be even worse if we join forces. Once we really hit our stride, nobody will like us."
With a startled laugh, Stiaan threw his hands up in surrender. "Who could resist an offer like that?"