Arc Six: Tales From Kastek
Rosa watched the family pour into the hall, a collection of distant aunts and cousins, and tried to remember their names. She recognised faces, perhaps a favoured dress or two, and even a few names, but matching the names to the faces, or remembering which branches linked her to them eluded her. She slipped past, into the open doorway, where the terraces and stairs fell and gave way to fresh mountain air, wondering if she might catch a glimpse of a daylight meteor - and noticed the last party member, sitting on a wall, overlooking the drop.
"Hello," she said.
The stranger clearly hadn't been expecting a response. She turned around, a mild look of surprise on her face. "Hey there," she said. "Shouldn't you be in there with your family?"
Rosa looked back at the crowd. If any of them had noticed she wasn't there, they hadn't said anything. "Are you a beast hunter?" She stepped out onto the terrace, and looked over the wall. Below her, the mountainside lay spread out, full of terraced gardens and, lower down, the concentric circles of the city. And beyond that, greenery and the forest, far, far away, full of nightmare creatures. "Did you come all that way? I've never met a beast-hunter before!" She gave the stranger a critical look. "I suppose that's why you're dressed like that? I'd like to go into the forest, too, but I think this dress would catch on things. And I'd probably be eaten. I don't think I want that."
"Well, since you ask," said the stranger, "yes. But I don't think you should be-"
"Rosa?" Her mother appeared in the doorway, several interchangeable relatives watching over her shoulders. "Come back inside, would you?"
Her mother was like some sacred statue in the centre of the hall, constantly surrounded by worshippers - yellow-clad relatives all around, whispering and gossiping. Here and there Rosa caught snatches of words and phrases - "I know..." "...terrible, isn't it..." "...just don't know..." - little bits and pieces, repeated over and over. She slipped between the bowl-laden tables, and nobody noticed. Not a shout, not an aside glance, not even a hurried introduction to a distant cousin and insistence she knew exactly how she was related to someone whose face she couldn't remember. Everyone was locked in their tiny worlds. They brushed aside her, but inside, they never touched, never even came close. She was left alone, to sneak handfuls of dried fruit and salted nuts, and the further she went, the more unfamiliar the faces became.
She'd snuck out to the entrance hall earlier in the day, in the hopes that the beast-hunter would come back, and she could ask her more questions. But, of course, she was long gone, and she didn't expect anyone would tell her where. Back into the forest, back with the nightmare creatures? If she came back, though, Rosa was sure she'd recognise her. That was odd - even when she looked at her parents, she saw only people, and she knew them by their adornments, or the way they wore their hair. But she'd certainly remember the beast-hunter's pale hair, lighter than any she'd seen, her accent, her lean frame (beast-hunters, she supposed, must be like ordinary people, they mustn't get enough to eat).
Maybe she could sneak a little further. Even though she didn't know who all these people were, they always seemed to know who she was. But just this once, tonight, they might be too drawn into their world to not see her slip into hers.
She left the hall with barely a sound, soft slippers quiet on the carved stone floor. Nobody outside the hall questioned her - they weren't her relatives, after all, so it didn't matter to them. Nobody noticed the little girl walking through the silent corridors, up the stairs, and, at last, into the observatory.
She'd been here a few times before, but never alone, and never when all was silent. Soon, this quiet little world would be flooded by her family, as they came to watch the meteors, and if they noticed she was gone there'd be questions, many questions. But for now, it was all hers. She could stand in the very centre of the dome, under the arcs of glass and metal, amidst gears and telescopes, and watch. Tonight the sky lay clear, as vivid as polished glass itself. She needed no aid to see the bright, cold stars, to pick out the constellations and remember their names. As she watched, the first streak of light blazed across the sky.
Her family were missing it, but that didn't matter. Some day, she'd meet that beast-hunter, the first person she could remember, and on that day she would have questions - so many questions, so many that she wished she'd brought ink and paper to write them all down. But she'd have time, to remember them.
All she had to do was wait for her to come back.
Fifteen years later...
Rosa was in the garden again.
Looming grey walls cut off the mountain winds, creating a pool of still air and greenery. She rested against a peach tree, a stunted little thing that never, in her memory, had grown a single peach. But a good place to be alone, nevertheless, to close her eyes and stand under the canopy, to listen to the wind above, too far to touch. Somewhere she could spend a short while, before someone found her and told her, in no uncertain words, that young ladies did not spend time outside. She came back anyway, buried her feet in the earth and imagined she was a plant too.
She opened her eyes, held up her hand, and remembered she was dreaming. The tiny snake weaved through her fingers, its tongue tasting her skin, its scales gleaming like green dragonflies in the sun. Its mouth opened wide..
Her eyes snapped open, and there was nothing to see. She lay in the dark as her heart slowed back to normal. A cold nose brushed against her hand, and she felt her way to the top of Cinn's head, scratching the big, fluffy dog behind the ears. It sounded so easy in the summer. Two dogs, a gun, and the perfect reason to leave home. "Safe now," she whispered. Summer was gone, the garden was gone, home was gone, the walls were gone.
With a thump and a sudden impact, Cinn climbed onto the bed, wedging herself in the space between Rosa's body and the wall. She should tell her to get down, but sleep was calling, and the bed was warm, and she could do no more than close her eyes and drift away again. Tomorrow promised to be an interesting day, tonight she'd better make the most of.
She'd just have to tell Cinn to get down another time.
Dhaymin couldn't feel his feet any more. If it weren't for the times he stumbled, falling against Jen and forcing himself to keep going, it would have been a good thing. No more cold creeping through his toes, no more feeling as though his blood had frozen, just pleasant nothing. The snow that had started to fall at the beginning of their flight, though it had mercifully not escalated into a full-blown blizzard, brushed against his face as he walked on. He could feel himself inhaling the thick flakes with every breath, pushing against the drifts with each step. All this, he reminded himself, had happened before. Even now he was stranded, on foot where nobody should be, this was nothing he'd not done before. He would make it through, frozen and exhausted, but alive. He'd not come this far to collapse on the road so close to Kaskek.
If it was there at all. Only Jen could know for certain, and Dhaymin had spent the last few hours trying to resist the urge to shout at him. He didn't need it, even if this whole mess was his fault.
There had to be something he could do. Surely he could feel if they'd stayed on the paved road, if he could still feel the stones. "Need to think," he said. "Think about what we'll say to them."
"Don't want to mess this one up," agreed Jen.
"Say... say we're looking for our father? Tha'ss a good story."
"Tha'ss the point! They're not to know that. Father lost, oh how tragic, wanted to find him but couldn't go on, so very sad..." Dhaymin paused for breath, taking in another nose-full of snowflakes, and sneezed. "Could say our mother's dead too."
"Is that wistful thinking?"
"Probably. She's fireproof." He recalled how the hall had burst into flames on the night they'd left, when they'd confronted Majiv face to face. He remembered dry heat, and later on standing in the cold night air, while Jen described the distant fire as little points of light, like midwinter candles in the dark, and he knew then he could not, should not, go home. But the fire seemed inviting now. Anything but this snow-blasted road he couldn't even feel any more. He pressed close to Jen, the only other thing in the world beyond the snow he could be sure was still real. How many times did he owe him his life now? Even when he was being stupid he was the only thing standing between Dhaymin and an unpleasant death on the road. The blessing of numb feet had turned out to be short-lived, as the pain spread up his legs and across his back, his muscles and spine strained under a body that felt heavier now than it ever had in his life. "Could say you had a girl too. Then nobody would ever suspect you was... you."
"And she's dead too," Dhaymin went on, unwilling to let go of his constructed reality. "Because of monsters. All dead, how sad."
"S'why she's not here, see?"
"Dhaymin, in the space of a minute you've given me a fake lover and killed her off! I'm allowed to be annoyed at this, aren't I?"
Dhaymin thought about this for a moment. "Stick to the bit about Father," he concluded. "Shouldn't be killing people. Not even imaginary ones. Won't ever remember who's dead and who isn't, at this rate. You think we're dead?"
"No," said Jen. "My feet hurt too much."
"Suppose so. Now look at me. Going on all nonsense about dead people who don't exist and dead us and dead everything except for him who's not dead. Lost it all. Mother can't be dead anyway, imagine us trying to burn her. She'd get up and give us a proper thrashing for being idiots." He waved his free hand. "Snow seems to be letting up. Fucking snow. Can't go on all night, can it?"
"Stop shitting me, Jen."
"No. Dawn. Promise you. We've been out all night."
Dhaymin muttered several of his favourite swears. It should mean so many good things, that Kastek was close by, that the sun would offer a margin of warmth, that they'd have a chance. But all it did was bring home how long he'd been out there. He felt heavier than ever before, weighed down by the understanding of time, by the knowledge that without Jen, he'd never have known if it was night or day, that he might have collapsed at Kastek's gates and never known it. He'd done nothing since the distant waystation, and that had been in his dreams...
He swore again, a few more times for good measure. On any better day, one where he didn't feel as though he had ice for bones, where he wasn't something for Jen to drag around and tell things to, he'd have exclaimed "It's over there!" and laughed at his brother's inevitable fall.
"It's over there!"
It took Dhaymin, his mind slowed by dawn's exhaustion, a few seconds to realise that wasn't him. "Now you are shitting me."
"No. Road goes on a way, but there's something ahead. Buildings on a hill. About two hours away?"
He should have been elated. "You're not seeing things?"
"No. It's there. We're going to make it!"
"Let's see about that," Dhaymin said.
Jen had waited until he was certain of what he was seeing, before he'd told Dhaymin. Kastek, if that was what lay ahead, rose from the ground in tiers unlike anything he'd seen before, though whether it had been built in such a way or simply clung to the hillside, it was too difficult to tell in the dawn light. As the sun rose, and the sky turned from pink to blue, the city on the hill grew ever more distinct, gleaming in the distance, and yet reachable, the first hint that his journey was almost over. For the moment he couldn't bring himself to care about the dangers of staying in one place for too long. A fresh rush of energy rose inside him at the certainty of rest, warmth, and food, and it lent his feet strength to continue, knowing their goal lay a mere hour or so ahead.
If it had done the same to Dhaymin, he didn't show it. His brother had fallen silent at the announcement, letting go of his ramblings about their father and Jen's imaginary, dead, and... unlikely... lover. Jen couldn't be sure if he should be relieved or concerned. At least having a rambling, half-nonsensical Dhaymin by his side broke up the trudging. He tried to break it himself, chattering about whatever came to mind, but was forced to accept he simply didn't have Dhaymin's gift, especially when all that came to mind was not freezing. "Be safe soon," he said. "Just think. Proper beds!" But all Dhaymin gave him was a brief "Yes," or "Suppose so."
Perhaps we didn't die on the road, Jen thought. Perhaps we went mad instead, and swapped places.
He focused instead on Kastek, slipping into the same calm, detached state he'd taken on so long ago, dragging home a Dhaymin who was even less responsive than he was now. Now he could see the road leading to the north gates, its cobbles smothered with snow, but visible by the lack of wind-stunted trees that stood scattered about the hillsides. The city gleamed in the morning sun, draped in snow as everything else around it, topping off the pale stone walls. Now he'd come closer, he could see that his first impression had been right - Kastek was indeed built perched on the hillside, but it was not, itself a peak. Rather, the city appeared to have been built in the shape of a towering stepped pyramid, various smaller ones clustered around the main. Suddenly the quarries that had dotted the land over the last few days made sense. There had been Numbers' words too, about a lord who had worked his people to death building his city - but Jen tried not to think of that, trusting that she never did lie, and she'd told the truth about that man having died. Indeed, the city appeared as if it had begun life as a monument before being colonised and transformed, each structure each one interwoven with doors, windows, balconies and awnings.
"Not far now," he said, for his own assertion as much as Dhaymin's benefit. He could see gates now, a few tiny figures stood by them...
A shout and a cheer, some distance off, made him pause. "Did you hear that?" he said. It had been coming from off the road, inside another scooped-out quarry of the type he was by now familiar with. Now he listened properly, he could hear more voices, as though there was a gathering down there, and another cheer.
"Sounds exciting," agreed Dhaymin.
"Yes." Though 'exciting, to them, could mean anything from genuinely interesting to a most unpleasant death, Jen couldn't help but be curious. "People," he said, voicing his thoughts. "Might be someone can help. Should we try?"
"If you think so," said Dhaymin.
"That's not like you either," muttered Jen. "Think of those proper beds, we'll be in them soon." Soft, warm beds. Jen wondered if he could remember what being warm felt like.
This quarry turned out to not be the same forgotten, overgrown basin he'd caught Numbers in. The roadside, just before it fell away, had been cleared of any undergrowth, and a sturdy earth ramp led down to the quarry floor. Just as before, though, a round lake pooled in the bottom, but unlike then, it was surrounded by a cheering, milling crowd. Jen couldn't understand what the event might be, until he saw one person pull away from the mass to laughs and cries of encouragement. Jen blinked, realising they wore a chest-wrap and little else despite the snow. The figure paused, the crowd parting to give them space, and to another roar of voices, charged, leaping into mid-air at the last second...
"You're not going to like this," he said.
"Not going to like what?"
"They're swimming in the lake!" Drops of water sprayed from the chilly surface as the figure plunged into the water, sparkling and clear in the bright, cold sun. A few seconds later and they headed for shore, while others crowded around with blankets. Already another participant was readying themselves and stripping down.
Dhaymin had gone visibly pale. "Father didn't-"
"No," Jen closed his eyes, rubbed at his forehead to shake the exhaustion, threatening to send him to sleep where he stood. He knew all about their father's attempts at teaching Dhaymin to swim, and he wasn't going to subject him to any more reminders of that. He opened them again, just in time to see the next swimmer dive in. "Not like that. Lots of people, all laughing... Think it's a festival?"
"I knew winter made you crazy, but..." Dhaymin said. "Unless you have."
"I can only say what I'm seeing!" Jen closed his eyes, opening them to the exact same scene. "Still there." Father had told them city people were strange - cut off from the realities of the world and its lessons, they turned to odd habits instead - but this was the first he'd seen of it. "Let's go."
"You're not taking me anywhere near-"
"I won't. Promise."
Though the ramp had obviously been built with easy access to the quarry floor, its snow coating had been packed into ice by hundreds of footsteps, and the descent was a slow, slippery affair. Once at the bottom, Jen quickly found that being heard was not as easy as he'd thought, either. Though he towered over most of the crowed, they moved with little regard to him, and each call of "Excuse me," or "I need-" was lost in the mass. Occasionally another splash, punctuated by Dhaymin gripping his arm so tight he could feel his nails, sounded out, and every word became drowned out by a cheer. "Nowhere near it," he said, but he wasn't sure if Dhaymin heard. He'd been to cities before, but long ago, and never without Father or Mother, who both commanded more respect than he could ever hope.
"Are you lost?"
At first, though the haze of exhaustion and noise, he barely heard the voice, let alone realised it was directed at him.
"I asked if you were lost!"
This time, he turned, looked down, and saw the speaker. She was a woman perhaps his age, short and stout, her hair long and black. "A little... listen, I need.."
Instantly, the crowd changed, voices ripping across its surface, and it parted, letting a couple pass through toward him. An older woman this time, and a man of similar age, holding her arm with one hand much as Dhaymin did with Jen, while leaning on a cane held in the other. The younger woman gave a quick sign of offering at their approach, the older woman brushing it aside with a smile. "Lost, I hear?" the older woman said.
"Yes, I.. we..." Jen struggled for control of his tongue, realising how many pairs of eyes were on him. "Got lost on the road." Now Dhaymin was leaning on him too, suddenly seemingly heavier than before, as though unable to hold himself up without him. "Could we-"
He felt an elbow nudge his ribs. "Dh-" he began, biting his lip to avoid calling out. Dhaymin slid downwards, letting go, and fall into a pile by Jen's side.
"Don't say any more." The man, silent until now, held up a hand. "I think we all understand."
Dhaymin woke slowly, from deep dreamless sleep to an aching, stiff, but warm body. He savoured it, dozing off again, unwilling to move from his tangle of blankets. No matter how long he spent on the road, no matter how used he became to sleeping in any scrap of shelter he could find, he would never forget how it felt to wake up in a proper bed. He slipped in and out of consciousness, his thoughts fading to dreams, then to waking, and back to dreams again, quick, meaningless flashes, each one. No more dying, he thought, as he woke once again. The recurring dreams had vanished along with the dead man in the waystation. Whatever else he had done, Dhaymin supposed he owed him that.
This time, he wouldn't have a chance to sleep again. "You dick," he heard Jen say. "You utter dick! You had me actually worried!"
"I tried to warn you," Dhaymin said, thinking back to the lakeshore.
"Could have been less... theatrical."
"It got us beds, didn't it?" If truth be told, it had been easier than it should have. He'd needed only to let go, give up, and fall to the ground, and he'd already been half asleep as the voices crowded and strange hands pulled him upright. The rest was half remembered nonsense. Words exchanged that he didn't remember, a little food, and glorious warmth. Simply being away from the wind, being able to move without dragging through snow, were their own luxuries.
"Still got to explain what we're doing here," Jen said.
"We're in the city, can work something." Dhaymin licked his lips, suddenly realising how dry his mouth was after so long asleep. "Is there anything..."
"Some water to your left, just where I am. It's snowmelt, clean." Dhaymin didn't give Jen a chance to continue. He reached out, felt a smooth surface, and a heavy clay cup. The water inside was warm, but he gulped it down, not stopping for breath until it was all gone.
He tried to remember the morning. He recalled being told to rest, that he could tell his story once he'd woken. A little more of that would not go amiss, he felt. "Got a better story than mine?" he said.
"I hope so," said Jen.
"So, about the door... locked?"
Jen didn't have time to finish. A knock rang out through the room, stopping him mid-sentence. Dhaymin set the cup aside, unable to shake off the feeling Jen was looking right at him.
"Let's go," he said.
Jen hadn't slept nearly as soundly as Dhaymin. He'd woken with the groggy, half-dazed head of one who'd stayed awake too long, with barely a few hours to crash before the day resumed around him. But he remembered far more than Dhaymin, at the same time. He remembered being told he'd have to present his case to the lord of this city - Ardea, or so he thought his name was. A case that would determine if he and Dhaymin had a safe spot for winter, or would freeze on the road again.
It wasn't his idea of a safe place. He'd thought he'd had enough of lords, since Koiski. Oh, he counted himself among them, yes, but on a pure technicality. There were rankings among lords just as everyone else, all the way to Fellstar's grand house, and beyond even that. Next to them, what were they? Dhaymin, the technical heir of a scrap of frozen forest, and Jen, his younger brother whose very name hung on his elder's acceptance.
He'd never been this hemmed in since his time with Koiski, either. He'd expected to be led upwards, into open, clean air, where a lord might gaze over his city, but instead, their guide led them downwards, into the heart of what he assumed was the central pyramid. He knew this only from memories of being led inside that morning, which was also the last time he'd known the time of day. It felt as if he'd slept until the evening, well after sundown, but here there was no knowing. The people of this land did not place much value on timepieces, and he'd been left cut off from the world, lost without the sun or moon.
Down and down they went, through pale stone walls that tilted inward, creating ceilings narrower than the floors, as if the whole structure were waiting to collapse in on itself. The air lay still, warm and dry from the torches. Jen felt swallowed in the earth, forced into solemn silence. As always, his gaze drifted, his eyes focusing on the walls, carved as they were with looping bird-figures, their necks twisted like snakes.
And at last it opened out again into a vast circle, a cavern in this network of carved tunnels. The light felt dimmer now, as though stretched to accommodate the space, leaving the vault in darkness and the edges in shadow. But in the centre, lit up, lay a raised, stepped platform, and upon that...
Jen had expected a throne, something huge and magnificent. There might have been one in the past, as the platform's surface appeared ragged, as though something had been pulled from it and not a lot of care had been taken in doing so. Instead, two figures sat upon the broad stone, one appearing to in the middle of a book. At their approach they set it aside, as the brothers' guide made a quick gesture of offering before leaving without another word. The reader spoke to the other, words that Jen couldn't make out, and offered their arm to the other to let them stand. It was then that Jen recognised them.
It was the older man and woman from the lakeside, where the crowd had parted to let them pass. Lord Ardea, and his wife, in thinner robes than before, but still heavy clothing in the cold of the room. His dark silver hair was tied back now, framing his brown face and pale eyes - but Jen knew before he even got a look at them, that Ardea shared something with Dhaymin after all. It was in the way his wife walked close, in the steady, testing motion to his feet. He was blind.
Realising, with a sudden stab of guilt, he'd nearly forgotten Dhaymin despite him having been right by his side all along, he gave him a quick nudge in the ribs. "We're here," he whispered. He froze for a second, not sure what to do. Would it be disrespectful to make the gesture of offering, if the recipient could not see it? But of course there was not just Ardea to greet, and Dhaymin, unaware of their host, had already done so - and there had been their guide, too. So Jen followed suit, and waited.
"Good evening," Ardea said, as he came closer. "I hope you dreamt well."
"Very much so," said Dhaymin.
"I am glad to hear about it," said Ardea. "A very nice fall, too," he added, and Jen realised the remarks weren't meant for him anymore. "I'm told it was a little theatrical, though, but I think you had a lot of people fooled just then."
Jen felt his blood freeze. Ardea was smiling, and if his eyes hadn't been that blank, sightless white (what had happened to him, he wondered? Certainly not the same claws that had taken Dhaymin's eyes), he'd have sworn the older man was looking right at him. Dhaymin, he thought, why did you have to do that? We could have negotiated right there and then! Even now, after rest, warmth, and food, his body still ached, his joints still sore from exertion, his mind still fuzzy. It would have made no difference.
"You needn't worry about it," Ardea went on. "I've known people take unusual measures for a warm place to stay. You weren't the worst of it."
Jen scrambled in his head for words, and sighed in relief when Dhaymin spoke for him. "We're sorry," he said. "We lost our father in the south, a long time ago. We've been looking for him ever since."
"And we," put in Ardea's wife, "have no way of knowing if you tell the truth."
Shit, Jen thought, don't bring up the rest of that story.
But Dhaymin, much to Jen's relief, spun out a story without any more imaginary dead lovers. If it had meant to be a joke, it had fallen so flat even he'd noticed, not to mention stirring up a few unfamiliar thoughts inside Jen's head. He mentally scolded himself for thinking such a thing. At a time like this! It had always been a flaw of his. "Concentrate on what is important," people told him, and his mind drifted to tiny, inconsequential things. He stared at a floor tile, covered with interlocking grooves. They'd been different on each floor, another thing he'd noticed while, all around him, Dhaymin and their hosts discussed why they should be allowed to stay.
"Please," Ardea said, holding up a hand, "stop. You don't need to continue. Whatever you say to me, I have no choice but to take you on. Consider my other option a moment. What would that make me?"
Jen opened his mouth to say "But..." and then closed it. It would be just like him to speak out of turn and ruin it all. He looked back at the floor, studying the grooved tiles, and left the talk to his brother.
"Of course," Ardea said (and he was smiling again, Jen noticed, when he looked up), "there is always a catch, but I will find you some work."
"Work?" That snapped Jen out of his floor contemplation. "Oh well... of course." It wouldn't be any different to the odd jobs he and Dhaymin had performed on their way here. The way he'd phrased it, though... he hoped, to whoever might be there and listening, that he wasn't dealing with another Numbers. The world barely needed the one.
(You ruined that as well, said a voice deep inside him.)
"Yes, work," Ardea said. "So tell me, both of you, what are you good at?"
Three coins, cool and smooth, lay in Ardea's hand. It had taken a little while for the two boys to understand the concept of stake money, but Ardea was used to that. It was a system from his Luccani ancestors that he had brought to the city when he had found himself its ruler. Any person wishing to be a part of the city must hand over something of value as long as they lived here, so that they would place equal value upon their community. Once they did understand they grew fearful again, this time that he'd throw them back into the snow for not having any money, but he'd told them anything else of value would do. It was then that one of them, (to the apparent surprise of the other, to hear them talk), had produced the coins he now held.
He'd have accepted anything they were willing to give, of course - if they left before spring, then it would be their loss if whatever it was held value, and he had never held any intention of throwing them out into the onslaught of winter. Besides, he was aware many people, away from the roads, never touched money these days. But these were something unfamiliar. He rubbed a finger against their surfaces, but felt nothing. Perhaps they were old, and worn. "You'll have to help me," he said. "What are these?"
He felt Lakedi take one from his palm. "They're engraved," his wife said, "but I don't know them. It looks like a web, or a net..."
"A Rhusavi coin?"
"I didn't think so either." He'd seen a few of those when he'd still had his sight, but on the rarest of occasions, for Rhusavi money hardly ever made it over the mountains. Most Rhusavi he'd met in his time came straight south, and if they used coins at all, they were Toxiliviti. But one never knew what might show up, in the city depths. "You should look at these later."
"And what do you think?" she asked, giving the coin back. He nudged it with a finger, but it felt as smooth as could be. Whatever design it bore had been finely etched.
Ardea rested his hands on his knees, seated on the edge of his dais as he had been when the brothers entered. He imagined how it must look. He'd seen this room only a handful of times, and it had been very different in those days. "I think," he said, after much deliberation, "that they are two young men who wandered too long and needed shelter in a hurry, on their way south."
She was smiling - he could hear it, in how she spoke. "And I think the others will give you a talking to for that."
"I think they'll have to cope with it. Shall we go?" He held his arm out to her, and took her hand, letting her pull him upright, and stepped down, his pace slow and cautious as the pain rose again. He took paths slowly in winter, more than any other time of year. The cold would always seep into his body, remind him of things he mustn't ever forget.
But that's an old tale, he thought, and this is a new one. An old tale to remind him of benevolence... and a new one, to remind everyone else that benevolence did not mean stupidity.
The Story of Jen
Rosa put aside her book, realising someone was there as she heard a hesitant cough. "Hello?" The speaker was a tall man, his accent clearly Rhusavi. "I'm looking for the librarian."
"I don't know," she said ."I'm just visiting." He was looking at her now as though he knew her, and she took her book up again. Had she met him before? He looked a little familiar... "Try the other end. There's usually somebody there."
"Thankyou," he said, and before she could say any more, he was gone. She flipped through the pages, looking for the spot she'd left off at.
She had met him before. She just didn't know when.
Jen had never seen a library so big.
It must be the size of the hall back home, or even greater. There, the library had been a tiny room with only a few shelves in the dark, and nowhere to hide, if anyone suspected he was in there. Sarn frequently did, until Jen learnt to be more careful. But if Sarn had owned this library, Jen could have kept him guessing and searching for hours. Shelves receded into the dark, galleries above his head creaked with the footsteps of the few visitors. Jen had heard that there were few practitioners of the scholarly arts in a city as far north as Kastek, but he could still not bring himself to believe that this represented only the smallest and most modest of Toxilivital's collections. Nothing he had seen could hope to compare.
He hadn't meant to come here, but Dhaymin had dropped him into it after he'd found himself unable to think of anything he could do. "Jen will be the best librarian you ever met!" he'd said, and that was the end of it. Jen supposed it didn't matter. He'd been told to come here, so he was only doing as he'd been ordered. That made everything fine, for now.
But where was he supposed to be? The girl from the lakeside didn't know, but she'd pointed him toward the back, where the bright morning light streaming in from the windows at his back faded into lamp-lit gloom. He wandered through darkened shelves, so tall even he couldn't reach the highest, occasionally taking a peek at a half-lit spine. His path led him underneath the broadest gallery, and here the shelves grew shorter, the ceiling, occasionally creaking with a footstep as someone passed by above, barely missing his head. Save that, and his own breath, there was silence. He found himself lost in a world of books, winding his way through gaps so narrow he sometimes had to take a deep breath and inch through sideways to make it. He'd never felt so entombed even when he'd been to the city's depths to meet Ardea, but it was not an oppressive sensation. In the quiet and the dark, amid shielded lamps and the dry smell of old paper, it was the most peaceful space he'd known in a long time. He stopped to read a few covers, on a shelf not so neatly aligned, and found an eclectic mix - star charts, volumes on the habits of monsters (accuracy not guaranteed, he thought), a few old novels that promised scenes full of words he'd stumbled on when younger and found Dhaymin knew all too many of their meanings...
Eventually he found a door hidden away in the back wall, dark wood against dark stone, and knocked. "Come on in," he heard, a voice that was not unwelcoming, but perhaps a little annoyed at being disturbed. He pushed it open gently, and stepped inside.
The little room smelt of paper, leather, and glue, the air so heavy and thick he felt he were swimming through scents. A few volumes lay stacked on a table that dominated most of the centre, and at that table sat a figure, tall and lean with silver hair tied well back. Whoever they were, they were too engrossed in their work to bother getting up to greet him, so Jen moved closer, to see. The figure was a woman, perhaps his mother's age, though she reminded Jen, with a twinge of memory, of Bala. She worked by the light of a shielded lamp, stitching together an old book's binding with meticulous care.
"I am your assistant," he said, making the gesture of offering.
She didn't look up. "Good. You're Ardea's stray, aren't you? Heard some talk going on. The old thing's soft, but if that's his way, it's his way. Go tidy the shelves, would you? They're out of order again."
"Just tidy them?" said Jen.
"Yes, and put them back where they belong. I'd wanted to do it all winter, but all these repairs come first. Them who read, spend too much time breaking. And these, I had someone bring them in after doing some cleaning. Valuable words, terrible state." She spoke without ever taking her gaze from the bare spine, never missing a stitch. "Everything else becomes a mess..."
Jen thought of the jumbled shelves and their haphazard subjects. "I don't know where they go."
"You'll find out."
Jen cursed Dhaymin in his head as he stepped out of the musty little workroom, and wondered if, wherever he was, he was getting thrown into the metaphorical lake too.
At first he headed for the jumbled shelf, looking for a familiar sight, but he found himself lost among the shelves after a few wrong turns. Checking the shelf behind him, he spotted a different random mix, and took a few down to get a better look. The first in his hand turned out to be a volume of recipes, though on flicking through he found most of them unfamiliar. A little more searching revealed, amongst other things, a collection of Rhusavi folk tales. Some he did not know, but he recognised one or two - tales his parents had told, when he was young enough to hear stories. Here was the story of the three hares and three rabbits, and here was Rakaros and the box at the end of the world. His father had told him that last one, to remind him how important it was to fight for all that was good.
Jen closed the book, a puff of dust rising as the pages slammed shut. Father would be angry to see him here - no, Father would understand he was doing what he needed to keep from the cold. No, he would understand, but ask why he wasn't doing something else.
I'm sorry, he thought. But Father was dead, and for the first time, the weight of that fact sank into Jen's thoughts. He'd been running so long, he'd never had a chance to let it sink in. Father is dead, he thought, and it was like picking at his scar.
He spent the rest of the day losing himself in work, letting the task at hand smooth over any worrying thoughts and facts. Despite his protests, he found the library's organisation easy to grasp after a little looking around and guessing, and he was soon running back and forth across the galleries, looking for just the right place to put the next lost book. It wasn't long before he was so engrossed in his task, he forgot that twinge for a few hours.
When the time came to leave, though, he took the book of folktales with him, tucked away in his coat.
"...so it ends with his pet hawk dying and his life gone to shit?" Dhaymin said. "Do any of these end well?"
"You know as well as I do they don't," said Jen.
"Come on. One of them has to have a good ending."
"I suppose there's Rakaros and the box at the end of the world," Jen said, "but everybody dies at the end of that one." It was also a Toxiliviti tale, if he wanted to be picky. It probably didn't count.
It was an obligation of all but the most minor of Toxiliviti rulers to sponsor and provide for a certain amount of students. The wilds may be dangerous, but in the most secluded of fortresses there were always people who tried to continue as though nothing had happened. But in a broken world there were rooms to spare, and so Ardea had let them stay in a pair of them. They were small, with just a bed each, but comfortable enough after months of makeshift shelter and borrowed mattresses. Jen had found himself pacing up and down in his room once alone, reminding himself over and over it was his, for the rest of winter, and he was safe. His mind wandered, and he thought of claws sinking into the snow, teeth bared in hunger, but forgot about it. He didn't have to keep running as long as he was walled up.
The idea that he had nothing to do but look forward to another day of close packed shelves and the smell of paper should have been a welcome one, but the quiet was a little too much, and he'd started talking to Dhaymin who, in typical fashion, had demanded he share his book. And in typical fashion, had complained about it.
"Everyone dying's better," said Dhaymin. "They might come back as someone better off." He lay stretched out on the bed, arms behind his back, while Jen sat on the edge with the book in his lap. "I always wondered what Father would come back as."
A grin spread over Dhaymin's face. "I wonder if he was that bird I roasted today."
"Dhaymin, stop that!" Jen closed the book. "Please."
"Aw, Jen," Dhaymin said, pushing himself upright so he was propped up on one elbow. "I wouldn't mean that, you know. You still respected him, didn't you?"
"He was our father," Jen said, in a quiet voice.
"Taught me how to shoot, all by himself," Dhaymin said. "You wouldn't remember that. Big lot of good it did now, though." He scratched one of his face scars, nudging the blindfold aside. Jen looked away. "Listen. I'm sorry."
Jen stared at the leather cover, its surface finely pitted and grooved, dark wine-red stain pooling in the cracks. "We should go and eat," he said.
"That's an idea I can get behind," Dhaymin said. "I know where there's good food. I'll take you if you find some happier stories."
"They're realistic!" protested Jen.
"I've had enough of realistic for one lifetime," Dhaymin said. "I'd like to put it off until my next time around." He stood up, smoothing down his clothes. "Come on. Leave that thing behind."
Jen looked at the book again, and placed it on the bed before standing up beside his brother. "Yes," he said. "Let's go."
He returned the next morning with the book in his coat, meaning to put it back in its rightful place, as soon as he remembered just where that was. But he found himself in a quiet corner, turning a few pages, and came again to the story he'd read to Dhaymin.
Jen rubbed his eyes as he came to the end of the short tale. It wasn't fair that it should end that way. Dhaymin had been right about that. But not being fair, Jen felt, was the point. It was supposed to be about loss, pain, becoming a man, and realising that whatever your dreams may be, you would have to face what stood before you, even if it was the bleakest of roads. And Dhaymin's probably felt more of that than any of us, he thought. Perhaps Dhaymin had a point. It's not fair! screamed a forgotten part of him, hidden in a dark corner. He silenced it, and closed the book. I sound like a child.
He stood up, meaning to take it back properly this time, and made his way to the central hall, ringed with galleries and bathed in golden winter sunlight. Unable to decide, though, he went back to the dusty, paper scented room he'd first seen the librarian in, hoping to find her there. After a few minutes of trying to remember the way through the tight packed shelves and darkened, silent corners, he made it to the door, only to find she wasn't alone.
"Thank you, most kindly."
"If you need any more, you just- ah. It's you." It was the first time he'd ever seen the librarian look directly at him. "You lost?"
"A little," Jen said.
"Ah, it is you." The second person, leaning on his cane and holding a book of his own, was Ardea himself. "How is she treating you? Well?"
"Well enough," said the librarian, who wasted no time in sitting back down. She was just about to get back to work when she paused, needle in hand. "Wait a moment. What's that you have there? Is it damaged? Let me see."
"I-" Jen began, but thought better of it. What would she say if she knew he'd taken it away last night? He was sure he'd kept it safe, even when slamming it shut after more of Dhaymin's comments. "I just found it and didn't know where to put it." He laid it down on the table before her, and braced himself.
She picked it up, examining the cover. Turning the book over, she opened it, very carefully, and placed it on the table. The sound of turning pages filled the room, and Jen hardly dared move. Ardea, who had been content to stand by and let the scene unfold, moved a little closer, listening in. At last, she closed the book, not with the sharp snap Jen had employed, but with care and reverence. "Where did you find this?" she said, as usual never turning to face it.
She knew what he'd done. People always knew. "It was on a shelf outside," he said. "I just picked it up."
For a few seconds, she did not answer. Jen steadied himself, and finally, she spoke. "I've been looking for this for a long time," she said. "I had been afraid it was lost, or stolen. You would know who put it there?"
"No," said Jen. That, at least, was the truth.
"I suppose not," she said. "Well, I'm glad it turned up."
"Might I ask what all this talk is about?" put in Ardea.
"Gladly." The librarian stood up, taking up the book again. "This is a very valuable collection, and one I misplaced some time ago. I have a second copy, but it was in dreadful condition. Even I could only do so much." She laid a hand on the work table, before the glue and threads. "Your friend here saved me a lot of work, picking it up as he did. Quite unusual he found it so quickly. Luck?" She smiled, looked up at him, and her eyes met his. "You don't look so pleased with yourself. I would be. Was it luck?"
"I told you, I just found it."
"Is that all?"
No wonder he'd thought of Bala when he first met her! Jen looked back and forth, from Ardea, to the librarian, and took a deep breath. "I took it with me last night," he said. "I'm sorry. I only wanted my brother to-"
"I know how you mean," cut in Ardea. He tapped his cane on the floor, before the librarian could say anything. "You never asked me what I, of all people, would want with a book, did you?"
"I had wondered," said the librarian, with a smile.
"Then don't," Ardea said. "And don't be too hard on him."
"Did you really think I would be?"
"I would not put it past you," said Ardea, and now he too was smiling.
Jen stood in silence, not sure of what to say. Was it more luck, that Ardea had been there at just the right time? The librarian flicked a few specks of dust from the book's cover, and stepped forward. Like most people Jen met, she was far shorter than him, but made up for it in presence. Some people were born to feel tall, even if they were not. Jen supposed, if that were the case, he should have been a lot smaller. "I do have one thing to ask of you," she said.
"Ask first. Now go on. You have work to do!"
"I brought you something." Jen pushed the door open, and wondered what Father would have said about today's events.
"Has it got any better endings?"
"Hard to say. It's a book of recipes."
"Sounds like a good ending to me," Dhaymin said, standing up. "What's in it? I'd like to try something."
"Let me see." Jen sat on the edge of the bed, leafing through the pages. It was probably inevitable that Dhaymin would end up as a cook, even if Father would have found it odd. On the occasions they'd had to find their own food when young, Jen had always left it to Dhaymin, from butchering to cooking. He'd even snuck into the kitchens at home, at first just to steal a little extra, but then he'd started to learn more about what he was doing. The first time he'd tried baking bread had been especially memorable.
But instead, Dhaymin looked lost in thought. "You sound pleased with yourself. Something good happen?"
Jen let his eyes follow a few words, just skimming the page. "Yes," he said. "Suppose it did."
"Do you have any candles?"
"What, what are you doing to make with those?"
"Nothing." Dhaymin stood, motionless, arms clasped behind his back. "There was something I wanted to do."
The city lay before them. Concentric, tiered layers fell outward to faraway streets, dotted with points of light and interwoven with aqueducts. Snow, whipped by the wind, blew past them as they sat around the tiny candle. The terrace was slick and icy, shimmering in the lamplight behind their backs. The candle sat between them, sheltered by their bodies and burning heedless of the weather.
They owned nothing belonging to Sarn that was fit to burn, and his body had long since gone back to the flames. Jen wouldn't have thought of it. But, he supposed, it would do. So many things were like that. Imperfect, but enough.
"He was our father," Jen said. "He mattered, didn't he?"
"Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no." Dhaymin sat hunched over, arms wrapped around his knees against the cold. Don't regret losing him. Look what he did to you."
"He tried. Give him that."
"I know. And when he tried, he was a terrible person. Hope he's someone better now."
Jen watched the tiny flame dance and waver, the wax pooling as the candle burned ever smaller. "I hope so too," he said. And that was enough for him.
They waited on the windswept terrace, until at last the candle burnt itself out, and a tiny wisp of smoke rose until it too was blown away over the cityscape. Jen stood, let Dhaymin take his arm, and together they returned inside, to warmth, and beds, and sleep. They would need it. There was always tomorrow to be ready for, after all.
The Story of Dhaymin
The sound of idle chatter filtered through to the little kitchen, where Dhaymin paid it no heed, concentrating on the spit and crackle from the griddle, where the latest batch of oatcakes cooked. Carefully, he tapped one with a knife to check its readiness and, satisfied, pried it from the surface. The plate was hot under his hands, heat radiating into his skin, and spreading throughout the room, leaving him bathed in pleasant warmth. Placing the cakes aside, he felt his way to the oven beside him, opening it for an experimental (and delicious) sniff. The rye bread would be soon be ready, but there was still time for another batch of oatcakes. He returned to the bowl, filled a cup with snowmelt until he felt it was full, and poured.
It had been a day and a night since he'd sat with Jen on the freezing terrace, sheltering that candle and thinking of his father.
A door opened, the chatter growing louder for a second until it slammed closed. "More oatcakes? Good. Bring me another plate, with raspberries. Things are turning busy."
"Will do," he said. Where were the raspberries again? But the speaker was already gone, so he reached up and ran his hand along the shelves above. He took down a few heavy, earthen jars, and felt along their sides for the telltale marks. Here was the raspberry jar, and Dhaymin pried the lid open.
He'd never tasted raspberries until his first day in this kitchen, and their sweetness surprised him. He resisted the urge to try a little of the preserve just to be sure - he didn't need to, though he had the best excuse of any.
Dhaymin had spent more time in his father's kitchens than anyone else knew, except for Jen. Sometimes it was necessity. Sometimes the lone cook or healer of the holding would have fled or died, and when that happened and his parents found themselves called to hunt, there was nothing for it but for Dhaymin to go and cook for himself and Jen. Father had encouraged that. "Do not consider yourself too good to look after yourself," he'd said. But he didn't know all the times when Dhaymin had slipped in without any real need - just because he fancied a favourite, or to bring something to Jen when he was convinced of his failures, or, sneakiest of all, because he simply wondered just how that might go with that. It had been useful when Ardea asked him what work he could do, better so than Jen's talents, which Dhaymin himself had to play up. The boy simply had no idea...
Do not consider yourself to good to look after yourself, and Dhaymin did not. Interesting words, he thought, as he took a batch of oatcakes and spread a layer of preserve on each one (his favourite thing about oatcakes being that anything went with them). He'd called Sarn a terrible man, but he looked after his people, even if it was only because he knew too well what would happen if he did not. So it was with Ardea. His interest in the brothers had put Dhaymin on edge at first, and it still should, but days later he'd wondered if he simply cared that much. He'd visited the kitchen recently, in his own words simply to talk and be sure he'd made the right choice, and then taken some slices of fresh rye bread and gone to eat and talk with a few other patrons. Even Sarn never did that. Perhaps that was the way of cities? Dhaymin knew he had a lot to learn, in this world where people ate at their leisure, where water was clean, and where there were raspberries.
Perhaps that was why he'd had the idea to light a candle for Sarn.
He sniffed again. Eyes might have been useful in a kitchen, but at home they'd been windowless, buried deep in the holding's heart, to keep the food from going bad. Even with sight, you learnt quickly to appreciate the smell of ovens, the feel of dough under your hands. The rye bread was ready. Time to let it cool, and work on the next batch.
One of the first things Ardea had taught him was how to read the floors. Kastek was a new city, a re-purposed, dug out monument to its former ruler, and it put Dhaymin in the mind of a rabbit warren - if rabbits built above the ground. Broad passages full of echoed sound sides. Close to the sun outside, people clustered, little stalls and meeting places peppering the world with chattering voices. So many people! Hundreds? Thousands, even? Inside, the sound faded, the air became thicker and smoke laden from torches lining the way, the floors rough under his feet.
Ardea, so he claimed, navigated his strange fort with those floors. "The patterns are different wherever you go," he said. "When you know what is laid where, you will never be lost." But to Dhaymin, the patterns were simply lumps and grooves in the floor, little to distinguish them. People asked if his senses were sharp - and he laughed, when he felt like it. No, he simply knew the way back! Of course, Ardea had been here for many years, longer than he'd been alive - of course he would know his city with an odd, intimate touch. Many years ago, Dhaymin reminded himself. He'd had less than one.
His mind drifted, as he went deeper into the quiet, smoky caverns, to the midwinter before. It had been a mild one, and even Father smiled - and the older Father became, the less inclined he'd been to smile at all. Winter spared them. The following year boded well, and spring came early. They'd been a family.
They'd been stupid.
He walked on, over another floor he didn't know.
"Oatcakes, I know." He'd grown to know Aix well over the few days in her kitchen. She bore a restlessness and a way with knives that suggested a life spent slicing into things other than food, and the desire to go back there. According to some of the talk he'd picked up, she'd been instrumental in Kastek's liberation. Why she'd become a cook was something he wasn't ready to ask about, but it made him wonder. What might a man like his father be like, if his life wasn't destroyed? What might he be?
He was only here for the winter. Only making himself useful in return for food and shelter.
He could imagine a life like this.
Aix spent her time in and out of her kitchen, passing orders back and forth. The kitchen had already developed a sense of "my side" and "your side", each, on occasion, asking the other for some ingredient they had forgotten, or, in Aix's case, simply taking it. Dhaymin soon grew used to that. And so, they fell into routine. Sometimes they talked, though Dhaymin skirted around any questions of his father. "He's gone south," he said, when asked. "I don't know where, but I'll find him." When pressed, he said no more, and it worked. Even Aix knew not to probe a sore spot, and Dhaymin played the bitter son, forever searching for his lost father, with everything he had.
"Oatcakes, I know!"
"No. Where are the bilberries?"
"You're asking me that? They'll be on the shelf. They always are." He reached up for the jars, and took down the right one after a few checks. "This what you wanted?" But even before Aix took it from his hands, he knew something was wrong from the jar's weight. It shouldn't be that light...
"This is nearly empty!" Aix exclaimed. "Did you use them?"
"No?" He knew not to touch them without good reason - they grew badly here, and had to be harvested from the wild, a risky proposition even close to the city. Of course he hadn't used them. He checked every time, didn't he?
"One of us has." Aix's voice was full of resignation, as she stepped away, returning to her side. "I suppose I will have to make do."
Dhaymin didn't need to ask if she had. I should have tasted them first, he thought, as he got back to work.
At least everyone agreed that the fire wasn't his fault.
It happened a little while after noon, the cumulative effort of several little distractions building up to form one very big distraction. Dhaymin supposed he should have noticed the bread was ready, but Aix only said she should have done the same. Thankfully the incident was swiftly resolved after a bit of water and a lot of shouting, and, no damage done but the kitchen closed for the day, Dhaymin sat at an abandoned table. The doors lay wide open to let the smoke disperse, Kastek's icy winds billowing in and slowly displacing the burnt, stinging air. Not having eyes could only be an advantage here - at least they wouldn't water.
Oh fuck. "Ardea." Dhaymin's hands twitched, but he didn't make the gesture of offering. What point was there?
"I understand yourself and Aix made a spirited effort to burn down my city," Arda commented. Dhaymin heard a scrape of wood on stone as his host took a seat.
"Smells like it, doesn't it?" Dhaymin said. The smoke overwhelmed his throat, and he coughed a few times. "There was the bread, and-"
"It does not matter. This is... not the first time. Is it not, Aix?" There was no reply. "Perhaps you should go back for the day. This is no place to sit and wait." As if in demonstration, he became overwhelmed by a coughing fit of his own, causing Dhaymin's throat to itch in sympathy.
"I'm sure I could-"
"I think it would be best if you were to go back," Ardea said. "Come back tomorrow, but give yourself some rest tonight. And that goes for you as well, Aix." Still no reply. "Just like her. Aix, if you had not let me in here, I would think you were gone."
"I'm listening," she said, from somewhere in the kitchen depths.
Dhaymin fanned at the smoke. "So am I," he said.
Jen was still bringing back recipes. Tonight's offering mainly involved partridges, and Dhaymin listened in, just to give Jen something to do (it was better, at least, than that stupid dead hawk story). The boy needed encouragement, and Dhaymin was damn well going to give it to him, his own problems be buggered.
"This one reminds me," Jen said, "of the first time we were alone. Do you remember?"
"Oh, yes," Dhaymin said. He'd been about ten, or eleven - he didn't remember exactly. The family had lost their sole cook and healer to a bad winter, and when their parents had been called out, it had become the first time he and Jen had been entirely alone, with not even a distant figure in the kitchen to look after them. Father had declared him Lord Dhalsiv in his absence, and left him with strict instructions to make sure nothing happened to Jen.
The first night, Dhaymin had cooked a partridge, from fresh. It hadn't been easy. He'd learnt quite a lot about cleavers and innards before the night was over, but Father had said to look after Jen, and that was exactly what he was going to do. He'd even tried making his own sauce, by the tried and tested method of putting everything together and finding out how it tasted. "I can't believe you liked it."
"It was a good sauce."
"Sorry to hear that, because I don't remember what went in it." The day's events surfaced in his memory, and he forced them away. He'd told Jen about them, just to explain the cough, and because there was very little he felt happy keeping from him to begin with. Jen would know sooner or later, so what sense was there being quiet? Showing his face at the kitchen was going to be another matter entirely.
"You could try again," said Jen. "I'd like that."
"If it doesn't involve bilberries," said Dhaymin, "then as far as I'm concerned, you can have it."
Dhaymin slept well for the night's first half, despite the lingering cough. He woke as customary close to midnight, though not even Jen would have recognised it as such, buried inside these walls. They talked a while over warm drinks, and after an hour or two retired back to their separate rooms, to sleep again until morning - or what passed for it in winter.
Dhaymin lay awake.
Hours slipped by as he shifted position, pulled away stuffy blankets, tried to calm his mind. None of it helped. He knew this feeling all too well, and there'd be no more sleep tonight. Giving up, he got out of bed, his bare feet welcoming the cool stone floor, and dressed. He heard nothing - the world might as well not be there, on nights like this, only silence and endless black. Probably not morning, then, but night and time had lost so much meaning that it did not matter.
There was nothing for him here, so he took up his cane from its by now customary position by the headboard, and stepped outside. A little while and a memorised path later, he found himself on the terrace where he and Jen had burnt a candle for Father. He crouched down, wary of the great height even though - or because? - he could not see it. The city below slept. Dhaymin heard nothing but wind, felt its chill nip at his ears and face, spurring him ever further into wakefulness.
He slipped back inside, into the safe, warm confines, and found himself walking a different, but just as well memorised, path. At first he took it for familiarity's sake, knowing nobody would be there to direct him back if he became lost. The thought stung, deep inside, as sharp in his head as the patterned stones under his feet should be, if he were as good at this as Ardea. And then it coalesced into a new idea...
Dhaymin half expected to find Aix in the kitchen, as she was always there before him, and, usually, after he left. But it lay empty, and Dhaymin found himself confronted with that most unusually unsettling of environments, the familiar left deserted. Everything was as it should be, tables and chairs where he remembered, waiting for occupants that would not arrive for hours to come. The smoke was long gone, the air clean, but still, and silent as it would ever be.
He stepped into the kitchen, imagining it as the kitchens from his childhood, on the nights he'd snuck in, to find it emptier and colder than the day, and perhaps even bigger, as much as he knew that was impossible. Certainly now, his footsteps echoed louder than before.
How long did he have? What would he say if Aix walked in that door right now? It didn't matter.
Inside the ice-room, filled with slabs from the lakes, he found what he was looking for amid the shelves, thankful he'd thought to have those marked as well. Now he got to work, slicing and mixing, always double-checking. He tasted a few of the preserves as he went along, got to know their unique flavours. What he was doing, he didn't quite know. That is good, he would think, it would go well with this and, at one point, raspberries, of course! Nobody, he felt, could be sick of raspberries.
He was back in his childhood kitchen, and time meant even less than before. And now there were glazes, and ovens, and extras to consider, and the smell of roasting meat...
"That'll not be trouble now, will it?"
Dhaymin froze, just as his hand touched the oven door. Aix's voice, though muffled from the distance, bore a tone that said, without doubt, I am a cook, and I know how to use sharp things.
He stood, silent, for a moment, and then pulled it open, just as he was going to anyway. Delicious scents filled the room, hot air billowing into his face. "Aix, you know who it is. What sort of thief breaks in just to make a roast?"
"A very strange one," Aix said, her voice growing clear now as she entered the kitchen, her footsteps sharp against the stone. "Do I have the luxury of an explanation?"
"This is a kitchen, isn't it?" Dhaymin pulled the roast, smelling just right, out of the oven. "It's for cooking."
"Is that one of my partridges?"
"I'll speak to Ardea," she said.
"You had better tell him, Aix."
The kitchen had still not opened, though by now it must be time. Dhaymin sat where he had the day before, Ardea before him. The three of them had talked, and Dhaymin made his case as best he could, though there was little to be said for "I couldn't sleep, and my brother reminded me of an old recipe." At least he'd offered to pay back, in whatever way necessary, for the bird. He wouldn't let it go to waste.
But then, nighttime whims never made sense when morning came.
He ended it all with "Whatever you do to me, leave my brother alone," and Ardea had agreed, and so that was that.
"If you wish," said Aix. Dhaymin imagined her standing a little way off, stiff and irate, arms folded. "This is my kitchen, and that was my bird you cooked."
"And you know my offer." Though whatever he did to pay for it, he got the impression Jen wouldn't see so much as a slice. Aix and Ardea had both insisted on tasting it, and the remainder lay on the table before him. The rich scent tightened his stomach, reminded him he'd had no breakfast.
"Oh for everyone's sake, Aix, do hurry up and settle this."
"If I must. Ardea has told me he will not have you thrown away, this close to midwinter, but he has a request."
"Name it," said Dhaymin.
"And do hurry," added Ardea. "You are not helping the boy any."
"He requests that you help with the preparations for this year's feast, and share the sauce."
"It was delicious," put in Ardea.
Dhaymin paused, lost, for once, for words. He'd considered the possibility when they sat down to eat, and idly turned it over in his mind, but dismissed it as a silly daydream. Was he stuck in it now? No, they were waiting for him to speak. "Well," he said, leaning back in his chair, "I might take a while to remember it, but there were definitely raspberries."
"And next time, you'll use them after-"
"Now Aix," Ardea said, "he knows what he's doing, and I told you before he only wanted to make it up to you after yesterday. At least..." and here his voice shifted, and Dhaymin realised he was being addressed now, "that is what you wanted, is it not?"
"Course it is," Dhaymin said. And it was true - just part of the truth.
"Now," Ardea said, "you have to tell him about the catch."
Bound to be one, Dhaymin thought, but the prospect of a feast blotted out the worry. He clasped his hands, and smiled. Midwinter, a feast... a whole city! Catch? Bring it on.
"Very well." Aix's voice grew closer, as though she were leaning in, to be sure he didn't miss a word. "Do not, under any circumstances, touch the bilberries again."
Dhaymin grinned. "I think," he said, "I can just about manage that."
The Story of Rosa
Jen was so busy stacking books that he didn't hear the newcomer until she was almost beside him. Even as he did, he assumed she was only here to read, and left her to her own devices. It was only when she spoke that he realised she'd been trying to get his attention all along.
"Oh. I'm sorry," he said, immediately regretting his choice of words. The librarian had been trying to knock the habit of apologising out of him lately ("if people said sorry as much as you, we might have some actual honesty in the world, but there's no reason for you to be making up for everyone else") but if Dhaymin couldn't manage it, he supposed she never would. "Sorry." Oh, there he went again. What was the point in trying not to? "What can I do for you?"
"May I take this book?" she said.
"Of course. Thanks for asking, but as long as it's not one of the restricted ones, yes. It's not, is it?"
"Oh, no. I only wanted it for a day or two."
Jen tried to read the title, but the way she held it, he couldn't make it out. I'll be dead if it is restricted, he thought. But the guarded way she held it, close to her chest, hands obscuring the lettering, suggested she didn't want him to see. Not out of furtiveness, but... embarrassment? Nobody had told him how to act here."Let me take you to the workrooms," he said. "We can see if the librarian is happy for you to take it. I'm sure she will be." She'd been understanding of his taking a book from right beneath her, so surely she'd understand this.
It was probably just another of those novels like the ones his aunt had left the family. Anyone would be nervous, asking for that.
Rosa woke slowly, as she always did these days. Cinn lay in her customary place, wedged into the space between her body and the wall. The world outside her window remained in darkness, aside from the faint glow of lamps outside. It was just enough for her to take up the ink and paper she kept beside her bed and sketch in a few notes. The act felt like letting go of a heavy burden, as if memory flowed from her head to her pen and onto the paper, safely pinned down for later reading. Above her sketchy notes, from the prior night, lay a single line: "Do not be afraid."
It had been another confusing night, but at least there'd been no more dreams of home. The ones with the snake were not so bad - memories of confusing joy, not fear, but the ones where she found herself back home were a very different story, and she'd wake in great relief that she had not turned back.
Dawn would not come for a long while, so she wrote and then dressed in the lamplight from the windows, just enough for her to see shapes in the shadows. Cinn woke as she stood up, her ears sharp and pricked silhouettes against the dark. Rosa gave her a rub on the head. Today was going to be busy again.
There'd been more snow overnight. Yesterday's trails lay obscured by the fresh fall, their shapes blurred and smoothed out in the eastern sky's faint light and the warm glow from her lamp. She moved through the trail's remains, keeping away from the knee-high snow around her. Cinn, her thick winter coat by now all grown in, followed at her heels, while around her a scattering of other young beast-hunters made their own way down the track toward the fish-lakes. She could make them out in the distance now, a flat, slightly glimmering expanse in the midst of a rough terrain full of trees and rocks.
So far, there'd been no sign of trouble, but she knew better than to let her guard down. She'd never spent winter as a beast-hunter before, but she knew now would be the best time for a starving predator, monster or not, to risk its life and help itself to any of Kastek's food. Within the walls and tunnels, people did not think so much of that. They reminded her of her family, sometimes, living with little thought of monsters or frozen forests. But out here, the world came rushing back...
It was going to be another bright, clear day. The last of the night's clouds had passed, and the sky was a perfect gradient, pre-dawn blue shading upward to midnight black. The sun would do little to take away the chill that nipped at her face, an icy cold sensation so sharp she could taste it in the air. It contrasted with the soft crunch of fresh snow under her feet, the trail so impacted it would be ice by this time tomorrow.
She could smell the fish-lakes before they came into view. There was no mistaking them. Already the people there would be hard at work, patrolling the shores, casting broad nets over water teeming with their carefully tended catch. She had been there in daylight a few times, and seen the surface seethe with fish, their silver scales glinting in the cold sun. As she came closer she spotted torches, little circles of light in the predawn, illuminating sleds stacked high with the morning's catch. Cinn made a quiet whining noise at the smell of it all, and Rosa placed a hand on her harness, promising herself she'd give her a fish or two as a reward.
But something wasn't right. There was no busy lakeside, no shouted instructions, no people rushing back and forth to fill up the sleds. They stood like sculptures in the packed snow, and the fisherpeople stood by them in silence, waiting. As soon as she registered the scene, the leader of the beast-hunters spoke up. "Hold back," he said. "I'll talk." His name was Iktin, and he strode forward to meet the fishers with an air of having seen all this many times before - whatever this might be today. "I see we have a problem."
"I'll say," said one of the fishers. "Got something hungry at the sleds."
"Is it gone?"
"Oh yes, long gone. Left a terrible mess of the catch, mind."
"I see," Iktin looked back over his shoulder. The breeze ruffled his hair, and he tugged a few strands from his face. "You'd better all follow me," he said. "Best all take a look."
Dawn began to break as the little group picked their way across the icy, hard-packed snow around the lake edge. A few traces of thin ice gleamed in the pink light, waiting to be cleared away for the next catch.
The sled turned out to be right at the edge, just as the shore faded from managed docks to a wild, gentle slope, a curved beach of mud that rode up to another pine coated hill. Just the right spot, Rosa thought, for a bold, hungry animal looking for an easy bite before it vanished again. And indeed, a trail of disturbed snow led up that hill, until it vanished into the trees.
Iktin let out an impressed whistle at the sight, and strode ahead, circling the scene, careful not to disturb the snow any further. "You need to come see this," he said. "Tell me what you think."
The little group clustered around, and Rosa was careful to get a good view, without everyone else in the way. The sled stank. Raw fish overwhelmed her senses, and for good reason. The stacks had been slashed open, the straps holding them down hanging limp on the ground, half the catch spilled out onto the snow. Some lay intact, others gutted - their eater had been an indiscriminate one, gobbling them down in big, messy gulps. Splashes and speckles of blood littered the scene, bright red drops and puddled amidst white ice and silver scales. Rosa fanned the air in front of her face, trying to shake off that clinging smell, while the other hand held Cinn's harness. She needn't have bothered anyway. The smell of old fish hung so heavy she could practically taste it, and Cinn, rather than dashing forward to snatch up a bite of her own, laid her ears back and crouched by Rosa's side.
Rosa found herself imagining what could be big and strong enough to rip through leather straps.
"Could have been a bear," commented one of the hunters. And there were indeed tracks, though they were scuffed and muddled as the creature had trampled its own trail. Nevertheless, Iktin crouched by them, tracing their shape as best he could.
"Wouldn't be so bad," agreed another. "Some of the fish is still good, then."
"Don't be stupid," put in another, "nobody's going to eat that when they don't know what's been in it. 'S good only for pigs. If you want to take your chances with bacon, that is!"
Rosa scratched Cinn between the ears, but the dog didn't respond. "I'd say," she said, "it's a karvite." Not imagination - memory. Cinn would have been sniffing at the trail in seconds, otherwise, not frozen in place as she now was. "Same size and strength." As one, the group looked back at Iktin.
"I'll say," he said, "these aren't bear tracks."
The smell wouldn't go away, as if it clung to hear when she left the lakeside, trailing the remaining sleds as they were hauled into the city. Some of the other young hunters chatted amongst themselves - a few didn't know the creature she'd mentioned, and the rest took it amongst themselves to fill in. None of them had ever seen one, yet, and a couple asked where she'd heard the name.
"A few people back home used to call them that," she said, and it would do. Of course nobody where she grew up would use the name, karvite. They wouldn't use a name at all. They were beasts and monsters, and that was all there was to know about them.
The smell persisted as she climbed the Kastek honeycomb, with the intent of taking in a few pages from the book she'd borrowed the previous day, bumping into that Rhusavi again. He probably worked there, now, another traveller overwintering with the best of his skills. It surprised her. Librarians, as a rule didn't like to go wandering the roads. But those who did, she felt, wouldn't want to say why. She knew she didn't.
She detoured instead, forgetting the book in the hope of practical concerns - getting a good wash. She left Cinn behind in her room, where the bear-dog curled up on the bed, satisfied to be back, and made her way down the winding passages to Kastek's springs.
She knew all about those. It was all part of the history of her family, the wars that brought them to power. Kastek's former ruler, a man named Lektin (the names of monsters were not a proper thing to know, the names of rulers were) had chosen his new city's site for this very reason - the same war had left him a celebrated man at the time, enough to found his own city wherever he wanted. They had been his own private pools. But with him gone, and old Ardea in his place, they were now anyone's to use. She found one of them empty, and sank into the pool. It was unbearably hot at first after the snow, and her feet took a while to get used to the warmth. She sat by the side on the slick, rocky basin, dipped in a toe, and finally slipped inside. Steam rose from the water's surface, curling upwards toward the ceiling, where a mosaic of birds danced in a tile rendered sky. Heat soaked into her body, tensed muscles unwound, and she laid back, resting her head against the rim, the stone pool walls rough against her bare skin.
Karvites - she knew all about those, too. The last time she'd seen one - no, that incident had passed without concern. She remembered sitting on the mountainside, waiting to shoot, as it wandered by below. The time before that had been different. If she'd played that one differently, she'd still have two dogs by her side today.
She'd nearly gone home after that. She'd kept going anyway and lit a fire for Ruby - there was no body to burn, but the poor dog deserved it anyway after the way she'd gone out. She'd sat with Cinn, watched the stars come out and remembered their names, and thought of how they were the only thing in this big, cold, outdoor world that she knew, and some nasty little part of her that spoke in the voices of her mother and her sisters said -that's right, you can't do it.- And she'd gone to sleep, and the next morning had set off for... where? Somewhere far away. Somewhere where she couldn't hear them. She'd keep going as long as that took.
Kastek was safe enough for the winter - not as small as she'd have liked, but there were plenty of Rosas in the world. Nobody would care about another one.
She wondered, in that idle way of those who know history from old books, if anyone had fought and died in this room, and how she might know. A tile or two missing from the ceiling, little black holes in the bird filled sky mosaic, a crack in the wall...
Outside, someone spoke. Rosa snapped out of her idle thoughts, and listened, though there wasn't much to hear.
"..so then I said to her... I said to her... they shouldn't be..."
She stood up. Little water droplets splashed on the spring's surface, leaving tiny rings and ripples in their wake. It was time to find a new quiet place.
She returned to her room, let Cinn come with her for a run around the city's streets and tunnels, as the bear-dog had yet again grown restless. She came back tired, but with the rush of exertion still running through her limbs - a satisfied, accomplished sort of tired. Now she had time for what she'd been meaning to do all along. She lay stomach-down on the bed, propped herself up with an elbow while Cinn squeezed into her customary place between her and the wall, and opened the book.
She shouldn't have been so afraid to ask. The Rhusavi hadn't cared about it, nor had the librarian. It was only a long dead man's dream book, after all. They'd been in fashion, briefly, a couple of generations ago. Many old ideas rose to the world's collective mind back then, and no wonder. Things had changed, who knew what might be true? Ideas and rituals rose and blossomed like flowers in a garden. The strongest survived, the rest fell behind, to be remembered as old books for those who were curious enough to read.
There was a knock at the door. She paused, midway between turning a page, and then closed the book as quickly as she dared, placing it aside before opening the door. What now?
The visitor turned out to be Iktin, and Rosa was sure he had no interest in books. "I need you," he said, without waiting for a greeting. "Come down to the lake shore tonight."
She didn't need to ask why. "Will anyone else be there?"
"No. I need you."
"And why?" she said. She thought of blood on the snow, giant paws breaking the crust...
"Because you've got a gun. And a dog. And because you know what you're talking about. Be there for sunset." He closed the door without another word, and Rosa was left alone in silence.
She looked back at Cinn, who'd sat up at the sound, her ears perked. "I suppose we've got company tonight, then."
Even from her vantage point, Rosa could still smell the fish.
The torchlight cast a circle of light around herself and Iktin. She sat perched at the edge of a ridge, giving her a full view of the lake shore and the now-empty sleds, save for the one she'd seen that morning. It sat there undisturbed, exactly as it had been. Rosa felt she could still see those splashes of blood in the snow if she looked hard enough, dark spots against the white.
Further away, close to where the shore rose back into the dark forest, a pile left over from the evening's catch lay. Only the barest hint of moonlight on fish scales gave its position away, even after Rosa's eyes had adjusted to the light. From there, the forest took over, a tangle of darkness melting into jagged black treetops, against a vivid star field.
She flexed her toes inside her boots, trying to ward off the creeping numbness. There'd been nothing for almost an hour now, when a fox had appeared to take advantage of the free food, only to be scared away by one of Iktin's bolts. A karvite, of course, would take more than that to go down - and that was the gun now in Rosa's hands, a hefty load of cold metal, ready to go.
"You know I only have one shot at this," she said.
"Why? Don't think you can do it?"
Her fingers twitched against the trigger. "I know I can."
"I was wondering where you found such a thing to begin with."
"I borrowed it," she said, with an air meant to indicate that they both knew the meaning of the word "borrowed" and weren't going to ask any further.
The cold metal stung her fingers. She blew on them, the gentle warmth bringing the feeling back. "Of course," she went on, "karvites don't come out in the winter, do they?"
"That's why I want to get this one," he said. They didn't need to discuss that, either.
The night dragged on. She watched the stars, recited their names in her head to take her mind from the wait, while the cold wound its way into her body, stiffening her shoulders. She tried not to think of the springs, or her bed, and edged closer to Cinn, hoping to steal a little of the dog's warmth. She lay in the snow, her thick coat raised against the chill.
In the forest below, something moved.
Cinn noticed it first. Her ears perked up, and she stared out at the trees. Rosa hissed a warning to Iktin, and watched.
At first she saw nothing more than motion in the dark, so vague that she might have imagined it. She took a deep breath, steadying herself to fire...
She heard a distant rustle of undergrowth, a crunch of snow, and a heavy, bulky figure stepped into the moonlight. At first, she thought the first guess had been right, that a bear had wandered onto the shore. It was at least the size of a bear, coated in a dark, shaggy pelt, but its ears faced forward like those of a wolf, and its tail, lashing behind it and stirring up the snow, was long and tapered. It moved with quiet grace for such a massive animal, sniffing at the air, each step careful and deliberate.
Cinn shifted into a crouch, snow crunching under her paws. "Not now," Rosa whispered. Cinn was a last resort tonight.
Time stretched out. The karvite picked through the snow, sniffed at the fish pile, and began to tear into them, swallowing a few whole in hungry desperation. Rosa's fingers felt frozen to the metal. Her stomach twisted. She hadn't eaten in hours, either...
She recalled a ridge on a mountainside, a karvite ambling by beneath her, paying her no need. She recalled a very different mountainside, where a karvite flung a body to the floor, and it lay still.
She aimed, and fired.