Galen. Galen, please. Please.
No, he snapped mentally. Leave me alone. I told you, we're done.
Stubborn creature! the voice snarled. Why will you not listen to me?
Galen set his mouth in a hard line and went back to ignoring it completely. It hadn't left him alone since they'd escaped the necropolis below the city, and without Cattie-Shai there to distract him he hadn't been doing a very good job of forgetting its existence. It was like trying to ignore a mosquito in your ear, or a spider bite's itch, or your own thoughts – any attempt was bound to be short-lived and futile.
As the presence receded from his immediate awareness – no doubt to sulk and try to think of some other way to convince him to listen – he wondered if Cattie-Shai had found Dani yet, and wished he could have gone. It had been so long since he'd last seen her...he wanted to see how she'd grown up. Did she still look uncannily like Faust? Was she still the unflinchingly serious little girl he remembered? He wondered what she looked like in the Order's plate. Whatever his own feelings toward the organization, Dani's had been unambiguous. She had wanted to be a paladin so bad it had been a physical ache. Maybe now that she wore the mask things wouldn't be so tense between them. Maybe now that she'd joined the Order she would have finally seen enough to understand why he'd had to rebel...
He dragged his hand roughly through his curls and crinkled his nose at himself. As badly as he wanted to believe that, he knew the odds were unlikely. Dani had as much steel in her as Wyand. She didn't bend easy, and he doubted even ten years was enough time to show her what he'd seen. What he saw now.
He closed his eyes and sighed. It was best if she didn't know he was back.
He peered sadly around the cemetery and once again took in the degree of neglect obvious all around him, cataloguing the endless tasks that had not been done. The gardens were overgrown and untended; the sleepingvows had obscured all but the most well worn paths; most of the tombs around him were in various states of disrepair. He shuddered to think of the state they must be in on the inside. Generations worth of ancestors, gathering dust and dirt, the magic holding them together unravelling slowly as the centuries passed, wondering where their families were; why no one cared for them. At least, he supposed, with his father and Dani in the city he could be sure that Voidbringer's respects were being paid, and their Unyielding were being tended, if inexpertly.
Are you so sure? the voice asked. If I were you I would check. Besides, it would be appropriate to pay your own after so long an absence.
If I could I would, Galen replied with genuine regret, but walking into that crypt when there are only two men in the entire city who are supposed to be able to do that right now would be a sure fire way to give myself away. May as well just go right to the square and announce myself. He turned his face unconsciously toward the corner of the cemetery allotted to the family Voidbringer and forced himself to swallow his guilt. It had been a long time since he'd paid his respects, but the risk was too great. It would have to wait.
If I could, I would, he repeated, silently promising his ancestors that he meant it.
How long do you think your sister will be? the voice asked.
Galen didn't reply, remembering belatedly that he was supposed to be ignoring it, but he silently pondered the question. Cattie-Shai would have to track Dani down and just pray she was somewhere accessible, as opposed to holed up in the Vanguard somewhere. Then she'd have to talk to her and convince her to share what information she might have. No easy feat, under the circumstances. Dani was stubborn and loyal, and if she didn't think Cattie-Shai needed the information, or if she suspected the Fury would use it against the Order somehow...
But it's for Faustus, he told himself, hoping that would be enough. She'd do it for Faustus.
He ran his hand through his hair again and tried to find something else to think about. He had been so happy to be in the cemetery thirty minutes ago, but now he began to recall why it had never been his favourite place. It was, to be blunt, incredibly boring if you weren't there with a specific purpose.
He abruptly gave up on trying to keep himself entertained and got to his feet. "I can't take this," he muttered.
Where are you going? the voice demanded as he stepped back onto the path and headed toward the city. You're supposed to wait here for your sister.
Who's the head of the family, me or her? he replied impatiently.
Your father, the voice responded dryly, unimpressed, prompting an annoyed frown from Galen.
I'm tired of sitting here and waiting, he said defensively. Weren't you the one who complained about me doing just that? The voice did not have a response to that. I'm antsy. I need to move. I want to…I want to see the city. I probably won't get another chance.
But what if she— tried the voice, but Galen cut it off.
She won't. I'll be back in plenty of time.
Undaunted, the voice tried again: But what if they— and again Galen interrupted.
They won't. I'll keep my hood up so they can't see my face, and like you said, half of them wouldn't remember me even if they could.
And like you said, half of them will, the voice responded tartly.
Then I guess I'll get into the Vanguard to see Faustus that much faster, won't I? Galen responded crossly. Besides, here in the cemetery I'm all by myself and it's odd. People will notice me; they'll remember me. In the living parts of the city, though, I'll blend in easy. There are so many people, no one will be looking at me.
You can't just—
Look, I'm not listening to you, remember? Galen reminded it impatiently. So save your breath. Besides, he added without subtlety, don't you want to see it too? He waited until the voice grudgingly receded from his awareness. That's what I thought, he said, and continued on his way.
The overgrown path from the cemetery led in a winding, lazy S shape in and around the tombs, working its way out into the city-proper. The sleepingvows gave way to packed ground and heavy cobblestones, which traced their way through almost every part of the city – like the veins in a body, his father used to say, feeding the city's eyes and hands and heart. The paths would take him anywhere he wanted to go – a right turn would take him to the military quarter; the barracks and armoury and training ground. A left would take him to the residential districts.
For a moment that option tempted him – he wondered what their old house looked like, whether the gardens were still tended as lovingly as they had been while his mother lived, or if his favourite tree was still growing on the end of the street...but that was a bad idea. If he was to escape notice he needed a crowd; somewhere where people were too busy and too many for anyone to notice a single individual, or realize they didn't recognize him (or worse, that they did).
He put his feet on the rough stone path that lead straight ahead, toward the square and the Vanguard.
The familiarity of the well-worn route and the city he passed as he walked it set his raw nerves at ease. Without realizing it, he settled into an easy gait, comfortable in a way he hadn't been in a long time. He walked the narrow road without thinking, following the sounds of the square through the angular paths of the city and quietly taking in everything around him – sights, sounds and smells; those things he remembered, and those things he'd forgotten. For the first time since he'd left Haven, he opened his heart to the jungle and let it pull his soul free of the sands.
It does, the voice noted quietly, sounding much the same way Galen felt, feel good to be home.
Hmm, Galen murmured in happy agreement.
As though the silent conversation was a cue, the path opened up abruptly into the square. Dark, painted stone covered the ground, laid out in the intricate geometrical patterns the kin were fond of, angling in and around each other, extending from the challenge ring at the centre – the only part of the square not covered in people, or goods, or stalls. Galen eyed those pieces of the patterns visible through the crowd appreciatively; he had missed the detail; Haven had been so sparse in comparison, the harsh desert winds stripping everything of their colour and vibrancy.
The square was defined by the stone floor, which marked out its boundaries in the shape from which it took its name. It was hemmed in on all sides by moss-covered buildings of varying shapes and purposes, which were visible only in fleeting glimpses stolen between the mass of people milling over the stones. The scene unfolding in front of Galen was chaos to the untrained eye, but nothing more than a part of the daily routine for those acting it out; a riot of people and colours and smells, ripe fruit, and sweat, and fire, voices raised in joy and anger and everything in between – unmolested by the bitter tang of money changing hands. People gave what they had and took what they needed and the Arbiters wandering around the square settled any disagreements as fairly as they could manage.
Galen's breath caught in his throat as he watched them. How long had it been since he'd seen this many people in one spot? Not just any people, these people – his people – so unlike the Havenites from the land of the dead across the ocean. For that matter, how long had it been since he'd walked the square's stone, collecting food and goods for his family, calling out to people he knew or offering a hand to the blacksmith in the hopes of buying a certain red-headed apprentice a few extra minutes off to spend with him.
He stared around the area with a mix of awe and affection and longing. He had been on the island for days now...had begun the trip home more than a month prior...but only now – now that he was in the city, surrounded by the kin, and the jungle, and everything to which he had always belonged – did it really sink in.
He was home.
He was really home.
Paladins, the voice informed him tersely, interrupting the moment and pulling his focus back to the immediate present. From the right.
Hissing in annoyance, Galen pushed himself forward into the crowd, losing himself in their mass before the paladins could notice him on the edge of it. He readjusted his cowl as he moved, making sure it wouldn't be knocked off as he twisted and shoved his way through the milling people.
They didn't follow, the voice noted. I think they're heading somewhere specific.
See? Galen replied smugly, glancing over his shoulder, but unable to spot the paladins in the crowd. You worry too much. I'll just take a quick look around and we'll be out of here before you – or Cattie-Shai – knows it.
So you say, the voice noted. Are you still ignoring me, by the way? I'm having trouble telling.
Yes, Galen answered, only half paying attention. He was – for that moment – a boy again, taking disproportionate pleasure from the organized chaos, the hectic motion, and the noise. He grabbed a moi fruit from a nearby table, offering the woman manning it a broad smile and a thankful nod. She smiled back at him, looking perplexed at the strength of his reaction, and bobbed her braided head. He hummed tunelessly to himself and moved away again, holding the fruit up to his mouth and breathing in the heady scent of it. It was almost overripe – it would be entirely too sweet for most people, and therefore exactly the way Galen liked it – and it occurred to him how much he had missed the simple things in Qirast. Like moi fruit. And the sound of his own language. And how crowded everything was. He didn't understand how Faustus could spend so much time away from home.
He moved aimlessly, letting the crowd carry him along here, pushing against the tide there, and wondered what he wanted to do with himself. He didn't have much time before he'd have to head back to the cemetery – unless he wanted to face Cattie-Shai's wrath – so he needed to make the most of it. He cocked his head and tried to pick out the sounds of any of the usual games on the go – if they were being played he couldn't hear them, and now that he thought about it, he realized he didn't actually see any of the children that were perpetually underfoot in the square. Everyone who was there seemed to be there for business – but he didn't actually have any of that either. The Fury hunted and gathered their own food, and though they had once upon a time come to the square for some things, they had not returned since Cattie-Shai's twin had been killed. The Fury considered it a kin-killing (Galen was more than inclined to agree with them) and refused to interact with the city-kin anymore. The Fury made their own tools and weapons now. So being useful was out of the question.
Old habits were hard things to break, no matter how long had passed, and so, finding himself in the square with nothing better to do, he took an unnecessarily large bite of the deep blue fruit in his hand and turned his feet toward the distinctive smell of a hot forge and molten iron.
The forge had always been his favourite part of the square, even before Farah had started her apprenticeship there. The process of taking something as mundane and useless as a chunk of metal the Ghosts had found and turning it into something amazing – a tool or a weapon or a dish or a bangle – was fascinating to him. Something in the limitless potential of the metal, or the patient, steady way the smith worked it. He liked watching the final product take shape, though he had neither the desire nor the aptitude to be a metalworker.
There is more in this world to forge than metal, the voice pointed out as he slipped out of the crowd and moved toward the smithy nestled at the back of the square. The process – and the potential – is the same no matter what material you use for your craft.
Is this about religion? Galen demanded pointedly, polishing off his moi fruit and cracking the pit for good luck.
Not...entirely, the voice said. It goes beyond religion. Though I do speak of something spiritual.
Hmmm, Galen responded without interest, negligently discarding the broken pit. I thought you were.
The voice huffed. Fine, it snapped with uncharacteristic bite. I shall remain quiet on the subject of anything regarding religion, or the Gods, or the mortal soul and its own limitless potential. Are you satisfied? Will you stop "ignoring" me? Which, for the record, you have not been doing a very good job of.
Listen, Galen said heatedly, casting a belated paranoid look over his shoulder for any sign of the paladins before entering the good sized smithy. He tried to push his irritation back and just enjoy the heat of the dully glowing forge, I told you I don't want to discuss my faith or lack thereof, okay? Why does it matter to you so much? He cast a glance around the large, open room and wondered where the smith was.
You don't lack faith, Galen, whatever you might think, the voice answered, meeting his ire with its own. What I want is for you to see that. For you to realize that as angry as you are—
I'm not angry.
—as wounded as you are—
I'm not wounded!
—you still believe in Amen. You must, or you wouldn't be here.
The pronouncement hit him like a blow. He pulled up short in the doorframe and his knuckles went white against it as he tried and failed to reign in his temper – the same frozen rage he felt every time he looked at his old mask licked at the edges of his heart, blazing in that part of him that had been empty since Farah had died.
I still believe in Amen? herepeated coldly, his voice entirely too calm to suggest anything positive. The voice hissed in frustration as it realized its mistake.
Galen, wait. Let me—
You…you think I think I don't? he demanded. Is that it? You think I'm standing here, after everything I've been through, after everything I've done, and I don't believe in him? He scoffed incredulously, and his lips twisted into a dark, angry scowl. I won't worship him. I won't pray to him. I won't follow him. But I promise you this – I do believe in him.
Galen, the voice said warningly, don't do this.
Why not? Galen responded. You want to talk about what I believe? Fine. I'll talk about it. I believe that Amen is a lying, hateful, traitorous coward who either fooled the kin into believing he's something more—something greater than he is, or else he abandoned us a long time ago. That's what I believe.
Galen—! But the large man wasn't listening, running over the voice's protests without stopping, feeling sick and cold and angry all at once.
I believe that he couldn't possibly care less about the kin, or Qirast, or the Sacred Duty he's sworn us all to. I believe that he either left a long time ago, or else he condones the current state of things. That he wants it this way, though I won't pretend to know why.
He doesn't! the voice cried. I know it looks like that, but He doesn't—
He does! Galen snarled viciously, the force of his rage cowing the voice instantaneously. The large man felt himself trembling as the doorframe cut deep into his hand, but he couldn't stem his anger. If he didn't we wouldn't even be having this conversation. He's supposed to be this all-powerful, all-knowing entity, right? He's supposed to have dominion over Qirast and all that happens here. So what could possibly take place here without his consent? How could his precious Order grow into a vile, corrupted stain on the jungle's heart if he didn't will it to be so?
Galen, I know you have no reason to believe me, but please, I am begging you to believe me. Amen would not—could not—
Then where was he when we tried to fix it? Galen cried, unable to keep the old hurt, the old rage from poisoning his voice. Where was he when we were fighting in his name? When we were dying in his name? We were faithful – his Faithful. Where was he when we were left to die, and the Rebellion left to fail, and the Order left to rot? The voice did not respond and Galen clenched his teeth in his fury. Well? Where was Amen then? Where is he now?
Duty then! the voice cried, desperately bringing the fight back around to his original point. It sounded strangely sick, as though someone had punched it in the stomach, driving the breath from its lungs and filling its mouth with bile. Forget what I said about Amen. Forget everything I said. Forget the name; forget the God. You still believe in Duty! You still…you still worship Duty!
Duty, Galen repeated dully, and the word grounded him unexpectedly. The cold fire sputtered in his chest and went out, leaving him feeling drained and tired and dead inside. He sagged against the doorframe and turned his unreadable face across the square and up toward the Vanguard. It was physically impossible to see the top of its spires from this close; they were lost somewhere above, in the clouds and the sun's glare. As always the sight of it stirred something unnamed within him; something young, and foolish, and buried. Yes, he said finally, blue eyes dark and hooded. I still believe in duty.
A loud bang from the back of the shop startled Galen badly enough that he jumped and whirled around – he had completely forgotten where he was and it took him a moment to recollect himself. "I know you're out there, and you're wasting your time," called an unexpected voice from the direction of the bang and the sound of approaching footsteps echoed from an unseen hall. A pale, angry man stormed into the room from a door behind the anvil, forcefully wiping his hands on a rag. His face was twisted into a scowl as he rounded the corner, and he appeared poised to say more, but the scowl and whatever he'd been about to say vanished under a confused expression when he spotted Galen. "Oh! Sorry. I was expecting someone else." He shot a furtive glance behind Galen's shoulder, scanning the crowd hastily. The ire left his manner, though he remained very obviously agitated. "Listen, I'm sorry, but this isn't really a good time. Can you come back tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow? Galen repeated, surprised. He studied the smith a little closer and was surprised to realize that he seemed very familiar. "It's only mid-afternoon. I couldn't come back later today?" He had to be a Dragonhand: bright red hair, paler than average skin, big green eyes and high cheekbones – all the hallmarks of the second-oldest family in Qirast (though, admittedly, they disputed Voidbringer's claim to the title of oldest). In fact, now that Galen looked closer, the blacksmith looked enough like Farah that he wondered if it wasn't the family resemblance that made him familiar.
"Well," said the smith honestly, still eying the crowd beyond the door over Galen's shoulder, "I doubt I'm going to be here later."
"Why?" Galen asked, forcing his mind back to the conversation at the odd note in the man's voice and manner. He was perplexed by the strange behaviour; the craftsmen in the square normally stayed there until sunset at least – there simply wouldn't be enough hours in the day to get the work done otherwise. "What's going—?"
"Damn," the smith hissed, narrowing his eyes at something outside – a cold and unfriendly expression snaked its way onto his face, twisting his handsome features in a strange way, and the sight of it chilled Galen – he'd seen enough hate in his life to recognize it instantly. "Too late now. I did try to warn you. If you want to hide there's a closet in the back room." He gestured over his shoulder at the door he'd come through. "If not it's your funeral." He set his rag down on a nearby table and moved past Galen toward the exit, but paused to throw a look over his shoulder at the large man as he passed. "You may want to take the cowl off," he said, gesturing to indicate Galen's hood. "They're cranky about people covering their faces since they drove the Creed out." He shook his head and slipped out the door, muttering something to himself about 'another inquisition.'
Galen, still more confused than anything else, turned after him and moved back to the door without exiting. He was careful to keep himself in the shadows within the smithy but called out after the smith, brow knitted with genuine concern. "What's going on?" He followed the smith's gaze, scanning the crowd outside to see what the issue was. It wasn't hard to spot it. A trio of paladins, in full plate and mask and obviously on a mission, were coming toward the smithy. Galen clenched a fist unconsciously at the sight of them and his concern doubled. "Are you in trouble?" The crowd parted before the oncoming paladins, sparing them frightened or hooded glances before leaving them a wide berth. The reactions did not escape Galen's notice, and as he watched the crowd press into itself to let the trio passed he felt monetarily ill. That wasn't the type of respect a paladin was supposed to command.
"Well," said the smith shrugging with nonchalance belied by his tense stance, "I'm definitely about to be arrested, but I intend to make that as much my fault as theirs. Also, I'm serious about your hood. Take it off before they—hello, gentlemen!" he called as the paladins left the crowd behind and came to a stop, standing silently before the smith. The crowd barely offered the unfolding scene a glance before hurrying on about their business, keeping their heads down and their eyes averted. "If you've come to steal my goods again, I'm afraid you'll have to leave empty-handed."
"Don't do this, Dragonhand," said the lead paladin – a Knight judging by his runes – stepping forward and away from his compatriots. Brightly coloured feathers covered his pauldrons and Galen was momentarily struck by the colour; he was surprised the man got away with that much decoration, but then, something in his posture seemed to suggest he was the type you were better to choose your battles with. More feathers dangled from his sash; four black and one yellow. "Just don't."
The smith gave a start and his back stiffened. "Corbin?"
"Exactly," said the Knight. "Corbin bloody Skyshatter, at your bloody service."
"What are you doing here?" the smith demanded, sounding frustrated.
"Having a deliriously bad day," the Knight responded. "Also, apparently picking up a requisition, because that is completely worth my time. So please. I'm begging you." He held out his hands imploringly. "Just go get the swords and bring them out and don't make me do anything I don't want to. I would consider it a great, personal favour if you would not add the arrest of a friend onto my list of reasons why today is terrible."
"Well I don't much feel like getting arrested by a friend," the smith responded uneasily, but the tension did not leave his posture and he did not shift his weight from the balls of his feet. He was expecting, and ready for a fight. "But then...any friend of mine knows this isn't about you or me."
"Idiot," the Knight snapped angrily. "Please."
But the smith would not be moved. "I've got nothing for you," he said with a shrug. "I didn't fill your order."
"Why not?" demanded one of the other paladins belligerently – both crusaders, Galen noted, trying to decide what to do if this started to go as bad as it looked like it might. They, too, were expecting a fight – eager for it, even, judging by the readiness in their stance and the way they fingered their weapons. In fact, as near as the large man could see, the only one who did not want a fight was Knight Skyshatter. "Are you aware that refusing to fill the order, or failing to give it priority, could be seen as a treasonous – even blasphemous! – act?"
"Shut up," the Knight barked over his shoulder before Dragonhand could respond. There was a dangerous growl in his voice. "I told you to let me handle this."
"But, sir," the other crusader protested, "our orders were to—"
The Knight turned sharply on his heel and bristled angrily. The blue and green feathers on his pauldrons had the effect of making him seem much larger than he was and Galen peered curiously at the man – the tactic was common among the people of the Third Ring, and hadn't Skyshatter been the name of one of the Tribes? "Defy me again, crusader," the Knight growled, voice pitched deliberately low and predatory, "and I will show you what these feathers mean." Instantly cowed, the crusader backed down, lowering his face and letting his shoulders drop, but the damage had been done.
"What orders?" the smith demanded. He sounded angry, but it was a flat, weary emotion. Like he didn't really care about the answer or the orders. Like he was bored of the whole thing. "To goad me? To create some kind of make-believe crime so you can arrest me? To pick a fight?" He shook his head with a sharp, disgusted noise. "Don't worry about that, Corbin. Your Order picked its fight a long time ago."
Skyshatter turned back around and gestured impatiently. "Yeah, and we won it, so maybe you should think about that before you wave a flag that was never yours," he said flatly. "Look, Dragonhand, I know you've got blades back there. Bring them out without a fight and maybe my orders won't matter, okay?"
"Sorry," the smith said with a negligent shrug and a disdainful expression. "I told you, I didn't fill your order."
The Knight adjusted his mask like he wanted to take it off, but in the end thought better of it. "I know you didn't," he said quietly, and sounded genuinely regretful, "but unfortunately for the both of us, my new Captain is a clever little snake. She assumed you wouldn't fill the order for us, so she convinced Stormbrow to put one in for us under his name at the same time." He shook his head as the smith stiffened and scowled. "Fine, longstanding client like him? She was pretty sure you'd fill the order, and I'm inclined to agree with her."
The smith's face grew red with barely withheld rage but the Knight moved forward anyway, standing closer to the livid blacksmith, but out of range of his companions. "Listen to me you stubborn fool," he hissed, "the captain is ambitious, and she's not playing around, all right?" Galen could see the crusaders leaning forward, struggling to overhear them. "My orders are to take the blades by any means necessary and if you give me even the slightest excuse to make an example of you, I'm to do so. Do you understand me? Do you understand what that means?"
The smith cast a distrustful glare at the crusaders before turning back to the knight. "Why did she send you?" he demanded. "She must know we're friends—"
"She does," Skyshatter interrupted him. "And I think that's exactly why she sent me." His voice was hollow all of a sudden, distinctly unhappy. "You're not the only one supposed to learn something from today. So please...I'm begging you..."
The smith looked away, his face troubled. "Sorry, Corbin," he replied regretfully, "but like I said, it's not about you or me. I won't give you the blades." He raised his voice so the others could hear him. "I forge weapons for the gatherers to fight the jungle. I forge weapons for the Unyielding to fight invaders. I don't forge weapons for liars and kin killers."
"Damn it, Eyonix," Corbin snarled, but the rest of his words were lost to Galen as the ex-paladin straightened abruptly and stared at the smith, blue eyes huge with surprise.
"Eyonix?" he repeated incredulously, and entirely too loudly. "Nixie?" All three paladins turned to peer into the shadows of the smithy.
Idiot! the voice snarled as the smith whirled around to stare at Galen with equally wide eyes. The righteous anger was gone from his face along with all of his colour. Galen blanched with him at the unexpected and completely unwanted attention.
"What did you just call me?" Eyonix managed hoarsely, his escalating argument with the paladins completely forgotten.
"Hey," Skyshatter called, an authoritative bite to his voice that Galen recognized all too well. This was not simply the voice of Corbin Skyshatter. It was the voice of the Order; the voice of the Law. This was Amen's voice. "You in the smithy. Step out here and name yourself."
Shit! Galen thought in a panic as he reluctantly stepped out of the sheltering darkness of the forge and into the day's light. Eyonix had not stopped staring at him, and the animalistic eagerness was back in the crusaders' posture at the thought of a new victim. Shit, shit, shit, shit!
"Name yourself," Corbin repeated when Galen said nothing. "And remove your cowl."
Never, in a life filled with more close calls and near scrapes than most people could claim in two lifetimes, had Galen felt more trapped. The crowd, largely content to continue on about their business before, had sensed a new twist on an old story and was now gathering and growing behind the paladins. They watched with a fascination both morbid and fearful – hundreds of eyes, all staring straight at him. Even if he was lucky and the paladins didn't know him once his cowl came off, there was no way he wouldn't be recognized by someone in a crowd that large.
I'm dead, he thought to himself, angry and frustrated that he could have come this far only to die because of such a stupid mistake. There's no way out of this...I'm dead. They finally got me. The two crusaders were already fingering their weapons, spoiling for a fight. The Knight continued to stare at him from beneath the face of Galen's one-time God. The mask glinted in the sunlight, hard and abrasive. Galen froze as he looked at them all, unable to think of even a lie that might get him out of the situation.
"I...," he said, forcing himself to speak, since silence was obviously not buying him any friends. "I'm just...I didn't—"
"Name yourself, citizen." Corbin's voice had gone hard with suspicion and, Galen thought, frustration. He was aware of the crowd as much as Galen was and did not appear to be any happier about it. "And remove your cowl. I won't ask you again."
"I...can't," Galen said at last, and shrugged helplessly. "I'm sorry."
The Knight heaved a remorseful sigh. "No," he said, and meant it, "I am." He drew a longsword from his waist and the crusaders followed suit. "Take him." They advanced slowly, the Knight flanked by the crusaders.
"I don't want a fight," Galen said desperately, pulling his maul from his back – in his peripheral vision, the smith stiffened, wide eyes narrowing to little more than slits. Whether it was the sight of the maul or the realization that violence was imminent, he seemed to recover his wits. Galen wished he knew which, or else that he could pay more attention to the smith – wished he knew how badly he'd given himself away with the old nickname – but the paladins were within striking distance and he was forced to set his full focus on them. He slid one foot back into a ready stance and raised the maul defensively. "Please," he all but begged. "I don't want a fight. Don't fight me."
"Would that it were up to me, big guy," the Knight replied without slowing his advance. "But it's not. You should have just named yourself." He shouted a battle cry and lunged forward; the crusaders spread out to cover any attempt at escape. Galen ground his teeth and braced for the impact, but it never came.
"Wait!" the smith cried, darting in between Galen and the paladins and holding up his hands. "Wait! Corbin stop!"
Corbin swore violently and just managed to avert his lunge and keep himself from running the smith through. He stumbled to a stop. "What the Hell, Dragonhand?" he snarled angrily, gesturing sharply. "Get out of the way!"
"Corbin, please," the smith said, watching the infuriated crusaders closely for any signs of movement, but keeping himself between them and Galen – he left his arm up, palm facing Corbin as though the pose alone could hold the paladin in place. "He's not part of this."
"He is now," Corbin responded grimly. "Move or I'll move you." He started forward again, as though to do just that.
"What do you want more?" Eyonix cried backing up several steps. "The blades?" Again Corbin came to a halt, cocking his head to the side suspiciously. Eyonix licked his lips and shifted his weight. "Or a fight with a very large man?" he continued, gesturing openly. "Because...because they're both on the table right now." His face twisted sourly, as though it was physically painful to even make the offer.
Corbin straightened in surprise. "Seriously?" he demanded, but abruptly shook his head and grunted. "I wish I could take you up on it, but I can't let him get away without showing me his face. Not even for you."
"Look," Eyonix said, stepping closer and lowering his voice. Galen could practically see the wheels turning behind the man's bright green eyes. "He's not...he's not trying to be suspicious, it's just...he's my...my you know." The words were filled with enough innuendo that Galen's back went rigid and his face flushed red as he registered what the smith was implying. Corbin shifted his weight and turned to peer at Galen with a surprised curiosity and Galen had to physically restrain himself from ruining the lie with an immediate denial. In his head, the voice's silent, delighted laughter only made it worse.
What a clever young man, it said approvingly.
"His wife knows half the craftsmen in the square," Eyonix continued in hurried, hushed tones. He cast a paranoid look at the crowd. "If they see him...if she finds out he's here...we're both dead, okay?"
Corbin was staring at the smith as though he'd grown two heads. "You fly in the face of the Order, but you hide from the woman you're cuckolding," Corbin said in amazement. "She must be a real witch to have the Great Eyonix Dragonhand hiding his tail between his legs." He shook his head. "Your priorities, my friend, need work. But fine." He nodded decisively. "I know a good deal when I see one. If you agree to give me the blades without any more attitude, I'll let your friend here show me his face inside and I will keep the knowledge of his identity to myself."
"Thank you," Eyonix said, and Galen could have fainted from relief. The smith turned to lead the men inside but stopped when he realized the crusaders were also following. He rounded on them, all signs of gratitude lost beneath his blazing eyes once more. "Not. You," he snarled, biting off each word.
Corbin waved his companions off irritably before they could reply. "Stay outside," he ordered. "I'll be out with the blades in a few moments. Do not," he added angrily, cutting off one of the crusaders with a fierce gesture as the man raised a hand to speak, "question me."
The other man balked, back stiffening stubbornly, but Corbin growled at him like a jungle cat. The man hissed, but backed down. Corbin continued to stare at him expectantly until the other crusader elbowed him sharply in the side. "Yes," he added reluctantly, glaring at his friend, "Sir."
Corbin snorted at him and turned around again to follow Galen and Eyonix. "I hope," he muttered under his breath as they walked, and his voice was troubled, "you understand just how much Hell I am going to be in for this. The captain is not going to be happy when she hears I compromised with you."
"Sounds like a class act," Eyonix responded, rolling his eyes as he entered the smithy and immediately headed for the door at the back.
"Yeah, well, if you weren't such a damn headache, maybe I wouldn't get orders like these, hmm?" Now that they were out of sight of the crusaders, the man's demeanour changed noticeably. The stiffness in his step vanished, the arrogance in his posture dissipated like fog in the morning sun. The barest hint of a permanent grin worked its way into his voice. Galen decided that under different circumstances, this was a man he could have liked. "Make an example of him, she says. Your mum's not going to be able to protect you forever, Nix. The higher ups are getting impatient."
"My mum is a higher up," Eyonix responded with a shrug that was meant to be negligent, but was betrayed by the undercurrent of irritation in his voice. "And I never asked for her help. I'm not even technically speaking to her anymore. I don't need her."
"Listen to me," Corbin snapped suddenly, startling Galen. The Knight stepped forward quickly, grabbing Eyonix's bare shoulder and turning him around forcefully. He met the smith's eyes through his mask and there was genuine concern in his voice. "I'm not kidding. The captain's a Voidbringer and that means trouble for you. Whether you want your Mum's help or not, it's the only reason you weren't executed a long time ago. When I tell you she's not going to be able to save you, I mean it."
The smith shrugged him off, anger fracturing the nonchalance in his expression. "I told you I don't care if she helps me or not and I meant it. I don't care if they do execute me." Something like fury and something like hate burned in his eyes and Galen was surprised to find it echoed within his own heart. "I won't stand down. Not after—I just won't."
Again Corbin moved as though he wanted to take his mask off, but resisted the urge at the last minute. "I know, Nix," he said instead, and his voice was heavy with sadness. "I just wish...throwing one good life after another isn't...," he trailed off and Eyonix turned away to continue toward the back of the smithy. Nobody pressed the issue.
"So, a Voidbringer, eh?" Eyonix said after the awkward silence. He led them down a narrow hallway lined with doors. "I'm sure that's sitting well with you."
Corbin shrugged with obvious irritation, but grateful for the subject change nonetheless. "Oh it's just bloody lovely," he said and Galen was sure he was scowling beneath the mask. "She's got her daddy to worry about, and now I do too. Last thing I needed was the damned Grand Crusader himself keeping an eye on my unit, but what can you do?" Galen bit his tongue to keep from asking about the Grand Crusader – he still knew precious little about his father, and everyone seemed reluctant to discuss it, which just made him more nervous. Instead he watched Corbin play absently with the single yellow feather on his sash. The Knight leaned up against the wall as Eyonix pushed open the door to one of the storerooms.
"Well," said Eyonix, stepping into the storeroom and surveying its contents, "if there's one thing I've learned about Voidbringers over the years, it's that the only thing you can expect is to be surprised. You think you've got them figured out, and the next thing you know..." He let it hang, but not without a sidelong look at Galen that sent the latter dangerously close to panic.
Well, what did you expect? the voice demanded with a distinct rolling-of-the-eyes tone. Would he have lied for you if he didn't suspect who you were?
"I suppose you'd know better than most," Corbin grunted. "This them?" He gestured at the thickly woven baskets covering the floor. Eyonix pulled the cloth off the top of one in answer and let them look. Carefully nestled within the wicker was a collection of dark metal blades, gleaming in the dull red light of the forge in the room behind. "Nice. Are they hallowed?"
"Whoops," answered the smith without a hint of emotion or chagrin. He didn't even try to pretend to look innocent. "Guess it slipped my mind."
"Hmm," said Corbin, his grin audible in his voice. "Guess you're not as easily fooled as the captain thinks, eh?"
"Guess not," Eyonix said neutrally. "What the Hell would Stormbrow need with fifty hallowed blades, exactly? Tell her to try harder next time."
"Eh, she's new," Corbin said with a shrug. "She didn't have time to really give it a lot of thought – I don't think she's realized yet just how much trouble you are." A measure of concern worked its way into his voice. "You need to step carefully from here on out."
"Sounds like you need to do the same," Eyonix noted.
Corbin ignored that, gesturing instead at Galen with a thumb. "He hasn't taken his cowl off yet."
"So he hasn't," the smith replied easily, making no move to ask him to do so. Galen held his breath.
Corbin considered it, turning to look at Galen closely; the smithy was darker inside than it had been outside, however, and the large man's face remained well hidden under his hood. "He's not your lover, is he?" Corbin said at length, and it wasn't really a question.
"No," Eyonix admitted, studying the Knight closely. "He's not."
"That's what I thought," Corbin said, unsurprised. "You're a one-man man, if you take my meaning. Couldn't see you giving up on your hunt that easy." He turned back to the smith. "We have him, you know. He got caught in the raids."
"I know," Eyonix answered, and his face was unreadable. "He's not dead yet, though, or I'd know that too."
"No," Corbin answered with inexplicable gentleness. "Not yet. But...listen...I know you never actually told him, or anything – or, you know, talked to him, like a normal person – but you might not get a chance now."
"I know," Eyonix repeated, and a flicker of unidentified pain flashed through his eyes.
Corbin was silent for a moment, studying the smith's face. "I can...if you swear to Amen that you won't cause trouble or do anything stupid, I can...if you decide you want the chance to talk to him after all, I can get you in and get you a few minutes. But it has to be tonight."
Eyonix's face softened. "Thanks, Corbin, but...there wouldn't be much point." Obviously unwilling to discuss it further, he gestured at Galen. "Do you still need to see his face?"
Corbin thought about it. "Is he a Ghost?" he asked.
Galen snorted at the image the question conjured and Eyonix grinned. "No. He's a bit big to be a Ghost, don't you think?"
"Never know," Corbin said with a shrug. "They're not all small, you know. Is he a priest or a sympathizer?" The skull mask swung around to peer closely at Galen, and the large man could see the suspicion in the Knight's eyes.
"No," Eyonix said.
"I guess what I'm asking you is," the Knight said firmly, "is he going to be trouble?"
Eyonix hesitated, then answered honestly: "I don't know."
Corbin considered that, then turned his head to look at the smith again. "You understand what I'm risking by letting this go, yes?" he demanded. "If anyone finds out—if anything goes wrong, or there is trouble, and they find out I just let him go..." He let it hang for a moment. "Why are you protecting him?"
"Why are you letting me?" Eyonix countered immediately.
Corbin grunted irritably. "Because I like you and I trust you," he responded heavily, as though he didn't understand why either statement was true. "And if it's important enough to you that you're willing to give up your weekly trip to the dungeons then it must matter to you."
"What else?" Eyonix demanded, unconvinced.
Corbin hesitated and for a moment Galen didn't think he'd answer. "I'm...leaving tomorrow on a mission," he said at last. "And I doubt I'm coming back from it." He shrugged and looked away.
"Does it involve the Ghosts?" Eyonix asked, appearing surprised.
"Yep," Corbin said without enthusiasm. "And the priests. And it's all in the Third Ring."
Eyonix winced. "Oh."
"Place of bad luck for me," Corbin murmured fingering his yellow feather again. "Too many angry spirits, and no Caller to calm them."
"Can't you explain it to your Captain?" Eyonix suggested gently. "She can't ask you too—"
"She can and she has," Corbin cut him off, gesturing angrily. "Calls it superstition and says I just have to have faith in Amen. Amen," he repeated seriously, and Galen was startled by the gravity of his voice, "is the reason the spirits are angry."
"Hey," Eyonix chided him sternly. "You're a paladin now, remember? You can't talk like that."
"It's true, though," Corbin insisted, leaning down and picking up the nearest basket; more to give himself something to do than out of any actual desire to get on with the task, Galen suspected. He and Eyonix both leaned down to grab the others and help him carry them up – they were heavy and a second trip would have been wiser, but neither Galen nor Eyonix seemed much inclined to draw things out. "I say it without malice, but it's true just the same."
They moved back through the smithy in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Galen studiously avoided Eyonix's gaze as they moved, choosing instead to stare straight at the floor in front of his feet. He followed Corbin's trail through the ash and soot on the smithy floor, moving in a straight line for the door. He was, in fact, paying so much attention to the floor that he almost bumped into the Knight when the man paused in the doorway to throw him a look. Galen stopped just in time and back-pedalled a step, blinking in surprise. When the Knight was sure he had his attention, he said: "Anyone asks I took a good long look at you and maybe roughed you up some for your insolence, okay? Limp or something when we go back out."
"Oh," Galen managed, startled. He shifted the heavy baskets in his grip, still uncomfortably aware of Eyonix's stare. "Sure."
Corbin nodded and they moved outside. Galen obediently affected a limp and cast a surreptitious glance at the crowd. It had thinned out considerably when its members realized there was unlikely a fight to be had, though a few gawkers remained to watch. He offered them dirty looks from beneath his cowl as he handed his baskets over to the crusaders – themselves offering him dirty looks under their masks. Eyonix had replaced the stubborn but warm expression he'd been wearing in the smithy with the exact opposite and scowled professionally at the paladins like a man who had been badly chastised. The crusaders did not appear to buy it – they continued to glance suspiciously at Corbin when they thought the Knight wasn't looking.
"Thank you for the blades, master smith, reluctant though you were," Corbin said, for his part ignoring his crusaders entirely. If nothing else, Galen took comfort in the fact that the man appeared ready to give as much Hell as he'd catch for his actions. "The Order appreciates your contribution to the safety of Qirast and her citizens. Goodbye."
"Bye," said Eyonix, and his face said good luck.
Now's your chance, the voice said quickly. Try to— but Eyonix turned as the paladins left and grabbed Galen's arm before he had even registered the voice's words. "You and I," the smith said flatly, his face frighteningly serious, "are not done."
He pulled on Galen's arm and the son of Voidbringer had no choice but to follow. To do otherwise would be to make a scene, and there were still people watching from the crowd. He swore under his breath and let Eyonix drag him back to the smithy. The son of Dragonhand shoved him inside and threw the door shut with impressive force. The echo of its bang had barely faded before he was fastening its many locks with an ease born of too much practice doing just that. Galen stared at the locks in surprise. Locks were a rare thing in Qirast, found only in the temples and vaults, almost never in personal quarters or the square. Just how much of a pain in the Order's backside was Eyonix, if he felt the need to acquire and install so many of them?
"You know," the smith said as he worked, pulling Galen's attention back to the situation at hand. His voice was hushed, though there was no one there to hear him, "there's only one person in the entire world who ever called me Nixie. Just one." Galen realized the Smith was talking as much to himself as to him, working himself up to the obvious conclusion by going through the evidence out loud. Galen supposed, on some reluctant level, that he couldn't blame him; the obvious, in this case, being technically impossible. "And she's dead. The Order killed her and cremated her like a villain in the stories." He finished fastening the locks and whirled around to stare at Galen, his eyes tracing the length of him, sizing him up against one memory or another, until his eyes came to rest on the family maul, once again secured on Galen's back. "And there's only one man I've ever known to wield that weapon." He pointed at the hammer and Galen realized his hand was shaking. "And he's supposed to be dead in exile." He pulled his eyes back to the shadows under Galen's hood, his emerald eyes alight with anger and something Galen couldn't identify.
Hope, the voice supplied immediately. It's hope. Galen said nothing in response to either the voice, or the agitated smith.
The silence earned him a dark look from the latter. "I just compromised my principles to a completely unacceptable degree," Eyonix continued, his voice urgent and barely above a whisper. "And have potentially gotten a very good friend in an alarming amount of trouble with a very dangerous organization. And all for a man I have presumably never met." His eyes narrowed. "Except that you called me Nixie, and you're carrying that maul. I think you owe me an answer."
He didn't ask the question out loud, but it hung between them like a crackler at the festival, waiting for an answer to light the fuse and start the ruckus – who are you?
Galen froze, impaled by the smith's hard green stare – it was, he realized slowly, the same stare Farah used to give him when she was being stubborn and impossible and immovable. It was not a stare that brooked defiance. He could already feel his resolve crumbling beneath it.
He supposed he shouldn't be surprised her little brother would have grown up to be so much like her.
May as well tell him, the voice said with a heavy sigh. You've pretty much given yourself away anyway, and if he meant you harm he would not have tried so hard to defend you.
Galen's shoulders sagged in defeat, and Eyonix straightened eagerly. The ex-paladin drew himself up to his full height and pulled down his cowl, revealing his broad features, dark curls, and startlingly blue eyes. He could already see the recognition and vindication in Eyonix's face. "I am Galen," he named himself. "Son of Voidbringer."
"Galen," Eyonix repeated, and the anger in his face disappeared beneath a tidal wave of triumph and – the voice had been correct – hope. "I knew it!"
Your sister, the voice noted unhappily, is going to kill you.