It was the early hours of the morning when Serhan eventually returned to White Rock. He opened the black door directly into his own chambers to avoid causing a commotion in the fortress. They would learn that he had returned in the morning and that would be soon enough. He was not hungry. The Kastan Delor had put tray after tray of food before him until he had eaten all that he could eat, and he had been at the centre of their celebrations for hours.
It was a remarkable thing about the Kastan Delor. Once they had accepted the magic he had given them it was not something that they doubted. Decisions in the past were definitely past for them, they did not dwell on things. He wished he could be the same.
Now at last the second great task was complete. There would be no war. Samara was safe, and Sarata, Pek and Darna, although somewhat diminished, had each learned something. Only Blaye, the northernmost of the coastal cities had escaped without significant death or damage.
Many of his decisions could have been better, but the outcome had never been in doubt. Given the power and knowledge that he had gathered to himself since receiving Rin's gift, the ability to hear and see old magic, he had become as great as the greatest mages of old; perhaps greater. It was not without cost. He felt heavy with the blood of his own people.
He was tired; tired in body, but also in a deeper sense.
And there was still so much to do.
The Faer Karan were gone, at least for the present, and war had been prevented, but now he must begin to build, and build a world that could resist the Faer Karan should they come again. He did not doubt that they would.
He had used his viewing spell to keep track of what was going on throughout the world. Delf, he knew, was well ahead with building the new place of learning on cleared lands close to the village of Woodside. That was a place that would never be the same again. Already the village was being overwhelmed by builders, and immigrants had started to trickle in from other towns. A new tavern was being built close to Delf's construction site and the House of Law. He suspected that the builder would become wealthy.
He knew that there was another urgent journey before him. He must travel the land and seek young men and women who had the capacity for magic. The world needed a new generation of Mages because he could not allow himself to be the only line of defence against the Faer Karan. He would send them to Woodside once the place was finished, and he would teach them, encourage them, and prepare them. It was a task for which he had no particular desire, but no other could do it.
Then he must also prepare the Seneschals and colonels who had taken over Faer Karan domains. They would not rule them for long. Most of these places were like High Green, built by magic and needing magic to maintain them. They were not places for the general mass of mankind, but rather the homes of mages. It would not be a popular message. Some of these men he counted among his allies, but he doubted that they would remain so.
He sat at the table for a minute, trying to clear his head of the future and all that it contained. It would be impossible to sleep with all his responsibilities vying for attention inside his mind, and he needed sleep.
He focussed on pleasant memories; walking in the woods to the north of White Rock and tasting the clear, sharp air that reminded him of childhood; eating lunch in the Shining Wake in Samara as an ordinary man, the bright sea just outside the windows and the smell of it as he walked along the quay; the vision of Borbonil walking through the streets of Pek with a crowd following him, and the perplexed look on the Faer Karani's face seen through his scrying bowl. That last image made him smile and some of the tension left him.
He steered his mind carefully around the memories of Mai, deliberately not remembering, although they were his brightest, happiest memories. All had been stained by subsequent events and they were all a tangle of blame, failure and guilt.
He stood and through force of habit went into his study before his bed chamber, checked that all was well and then closed the door and made for his bed.
He stopped between the two doors.
Something had been wrong.
He opened the door again and examined the room. It was just as he had left it except that the book was closed. He stepped into the room and opened his senses to detect any magic, but there was nothing here except ancient traces and some spells of his own working. He touched the book. There was something that protruded from the clean line of its pages, something foreign. He flipped it open and saw that it was a sheet of paper, placed between the pages at just the place where he had left it open several days ago, at Corderan's confession of triumph and despair.
There was writing on the sheet of paper. It was an uneducated hand, and written in the common tongue, but he recognised it at once.
He picked it up and read the words.
Your journey through life is like a journey through a great forest. The forest is full of paths, some wide and some narrow, some pleasant to walk upon and some hard and difficult. You cannot see what lies at the end of each path, but as you journey you pass many turnings and crossroads. Each of these is a decision, and in those decisions you must be guided by what is in your heart. I beg that you not be guided by mistrust, anger and disappointment, for on paths so chosen you will find only more disappointment, anger and betrayal. Be guided instead by those good thoughts that remain, by friendship, by loyalty, and by love. Do not become what you have been, or define yourself by the paths already taken. The past is past. At each crossroads the journey begins anew. Each decision is the first decision, each step the first step, another chance to change the world for the better.
He closed the book again, walling up Cora's simple philosophy with the arrogance and isolation of Corderan's words.
She was right. He, too, was right.
The past was not something that went away. It dragged behind you like a wagon loaded with supplies. It made new paths difficult, new directions harder. Far simpler to keep pulling in the same direction, to let the momentum of the past carry you on towards wherever that led.
And yet he understood her words.
I will do what I can, be as gentle as I can, but there are things that must be done, urgent things. I will not be Corderan, but neither can I be some benign figurehead. All I can do now is prepare the world and wait. Wait for Gerique, for Dragan, for all the others. I do not know how they will come, or when, but I know it will be more difficult than the first time.
I will wait. I will be prepared.