Arc Nine: Inside and Out
Jen stared at the floor, fought to keep his eyes open, and waited. Outside, the first day of the year must be dawning by now, but all that was a long way from Kastek's inner chambers. It was strange how the mind occupied itself. He felt as if he were no longer here, and some automaton buried inside his wool-stuffed head kept him awake as it counted cracks on the floor. His feet had begun to lose all feeing, first from the long walk in the cold, and then from the sheer strain of being on them for a full day and night.
Not long ago, he'd stumbled through Kastek's gates with Dhaymin at his side, as Rosa and Lakedi herded them through. Dhaymin had barely spoken a word. Jen let what would happen, happen. His fate was out of his hands now, and this was familiar territory, almost comforting, in its own strange little way.
As his eyes traced a particularly long crack (or did he just have to start over several times because he couldn't focus?) the doors opposite swung open, and Ardea stepped inside. Jen immediately looked up. It would not do to look inattentive. Sleep would wait. Everything would wait. Nor was Ardea alone. Iktin stood by the old ruler's side, guiding him to his place on the dais steps. He didn't speculate what Iktin was there for. He could guess, and there was no sense in thinking of maybes or could have beens. Ardea sat, and Iktin stood over him.
"Let's not waste any time," Ardea said. "I'm not interested in dragging this out any longer than it needs to be. Your names, both of you."
Jen opened his mouth to speak.
"Your real names."
The worst had already happened. What harm would it do? He was supposed to play along. "Jen Dhalsiv."
Dhaymin said nothing.
"And Dhaymin," Jen went on. "My brother." He spoke with care, fearing that exhaustion would overwhelm him to the point that his tongue no longer obeyed. He'd not been speaking his first language except with Dhaymin alone since arriving here, but now he felt as though he needed to focus on every word.
"And is he affected?"
Jen risked a sideways glance at Dhaymin, but his brother was still unresponsive. He stood with his face turned toward Ardea, his hands clasped in front of him, and stayed as silent as ever. Jen wondered if he understood why he'd let them be brought up in front of Ardea like this. His words here were critical. If he could not make it out if this room, then maybe Dhaymin could. "No, Lord Ardea. Only myself."
"And you promise that?"
"I suppose," Ardea said, "this point could do with a few more formalities. Rakaros himself would tell you how many people have demanded them from me." He adjusted his robe as he shifted in his seat, and laid his hands on his lap. His blank, whitened eyes gazed up at Jen, as if they could still see him. "But when we are talking about issues of life, I think it's better for all involved to not go on. Jen Dhalsiv. Your presence in Kastek has put my people in danger. The accepted action, the one that people will expect of me, would be to have you immediately put to death, and the same for the beast once found."
Jen stood up straight, and did not look away.
It's probably just as good as sleep, he thought. He met Iktin's eyes, and wondered, deep within the fluff in his head, if he'd be the one to do it. So be it, then. He would stand, and look the beast-hunter of Kastek in the eye again, and tell him he was not afraid. On one condition...
"Then leave Dhaymin out of it," he said. "and I'll accept."
"I had not finished speaking, you understand," said Ardea.
"He didn't have anything to do with this!"
"That," said Ardea, is not the issue. The issue is that I have two people standing behind you who will both tell me that you appeared to be luring the beast away from Kastek. Not to mention you have been co-operative all this time. It takes a certain sort of person to know he's going to die and accept it so well. I might be tempted to give you your freedom."
Jen's vision blurred for a second, and he fought to stay upright, brushing hair from his face.
"That, and you appear to be in no state to explain yourself for now." Ardea smiled, and there was a warmth to his voice here, that put Jen in mind of long ago when he'd done something so well that it earned his father's praise. Sometimes, when that happened, when things went well and there'd been a good hunt, he sounded a little like that. "But this is not so simple. To throw you back out into the snow would be no different to ending it here. If I let you stay in Kastek, I put my people at risk. And no matter what some people will think of me, I will not put them in danger for the sake of a pair of wanderers, good intentions or not."
Jen nodded. He knew better than to feel relief. There was always a catch.
Now Ardea sounded like the Father from most of Jen's memories. "You may stay in Kastek," he continued. "as a prisoner, until spring. I'll not have you harmed, but I can't let you free in my city. If before spring the beast shows again, I might have to take the more conventional path. I hope I won't need to."
Jen struggled for words. "No," he said. "I mean... no, you will not need to, Lord Ardea."
"So you accept?"
He spoke as if he had a choice. Jen looked back at Dhaymin. "Yes. I do."
"And your brother?"
"I'm capable of speaking for myself," Dhaymin said. "Looks like I don't have a choice but to say yes as well, doesn't it?"
Jen barely remembered the rest. His shoulders sagged as he gave up trying to look attentive. He remembered Iktin stepping down to join Lakedi as she herded him and Dhaymin from the inner chamber. There would be a bed soon, and the rest... the rest could wait until after that. As Iktin led him away, he heard Ardea speak one last time.
"And Rosa, was it? Could you stay for a moment? I'd like to talk, if you can."
The first thing that crossed through Jen's mind when he woke was that wherever he was, it didn't look like a prison cell. The second thing was a memory of last - morning, was it? - cumulating in the realisation that he was, of all things, still alive. He laid back and stared at the ceiling for a little while, then closed his eyes and let himself drift away to the sound of nothing.
But sleep wouldn't come back, so he pulled away the covers and stood up. At first he thought he was back in his old room, but there were no windows. Someone had left a lamp for him to see by, and it lay on the table by his bed, beside a bowl of water. For a moment, he was tempted. His tongue felt like a dry old rag in his mouth. But he remembered the morning, and the look in Iktin's eyes, and left it alone. Strange too, now he could get a better look at the place, but this room was a couple of paces bigger than his old one, and the walls were not bare stone, but smoothed and engraved into elaborate designs of birds in flight.
He tested the door, and it swung open without resistance. If the previous room could be a cell if he ignored a few details, this one definitely wasn't. It was still windowless apart from a few deeply cut slits that were just enough to tell him the brief daytime had passed, and the lamps scattered around the walls seemed diluted in some way, as if their light had to stretch further to illuminate the space between them. Jen could see more carved walls and woven hangings, interspersed by shelves filled with books. Right in the middle sat a low table, laden with plates. Steam curled from a pot of tea, catching the faint light as it rose, and before it, a figure sat with its back turned to Jen, pouring some out.
"Food's safe, if you're asking," Dhaymin said.
"Oh, it's you!" Jen approached the table. It bore the usual middle of winter spread - dried meat, bread, a handful or two of nuts. It might not have been anything special, but Jen could barely remember when he'd last eaten. Little things like food ended up neglected, when you didn't know if you'd live through the day. He pulled out a chair, feeling his stomach growl.
"Good, it is you," Dhaymin said.
Jen smiled. Today was more than he could have asked for in his entire life. He reached out over the table, and Dhaymin's chair scraped across the floor as he stood up.
Jen had little time to react before his brother stepped forward, laid his hands on his shoulders, and dragged him back to his feet. A bowl of fruit fell over as Jen's hands knocked it, its contents spilling over the table. "Now maybe," Dhaymin said, ignoring the clatter, "you can tell me what the fuck you were thinking letting yourself be caught!"
"What are you- what was I meant to do?" Jen struggled to keep his balance.
"You could have done something! Something other than... than roll over and surrender!" Dhaymin shook Jen's shoulders, pushing him back, and Jen waved his arms in an attempt to stay upright.
"Such as what?" Jen said.
"Such as... such as... didn't you think you'd be killed?
"Yes," Jen said, and I'm a bit surprised I wasn't, but-"
"There, you see! That's all you ever do! You run off, and I have to show up and rescue you! So... so..." His grip lightened, but he didn't take his hands from Jen's shoulders. "So how the fuck am I supposed to rescue you from this?"
"Hey," Jen said, relaxing a little, "Ardea didn't kill us."
"You didn't know he wouldn't!" Dhaymin stepped back. "You didn't think!"
Jen rubbed his shoulders, and took a deep breath. "I don't think? What are you doing? You can't think of any answer that doesn't involve fleeing! You think I went off and did something stupid and need you to come to the rescue... I don't! What else are you going to do? You can't want to get out of here and start fucking running again! Where to? We've got beds, we've got food, we're safe as we'll ever be with someone knowing... well, knowing everything... and all you can think of is throwing it away and running into the snow! Can't you think of a solution to anything that doesn't involve setting the problem on fire and running away from it?" He stepped away from Dhaymin, and turned his back, staring at the floor. That was carved too. He'd never noticed, until now. His foot traced a bird's wing, frozen in stone.
"You know that everything I've done was to keep you safe, don't you?"
"I know. That doesn't mean you have to be Father."
From behind, Jen heard footsteps on the broad stone floor. A door slammed, and he was left in silence.
Jen supposed he shouldn't be hungry after Dhaymin stormed off, but he had been taught not to dismiss good food for frivolous reasons. Whether or not imprisonment and an argument with his brother counted as frivolity he didn't know, but he couldn't deny that he was still hungry. As he pushed Dhaymin's chair back into place and pulled out one of his own, he felt his hands tremble. He'd have said it was from the events of the past day, if his last meal hadn't been since the previous night. While the delayed breakfast before him was not the most flavourful meal he'd eaten in his life, he hardly cared when he felt his stomach fill up and warmth spreading through his body, while he gulped down cups of pine tea without a care for the heat.
It was only when he'd eaten his fill and turned back to the door Dhaymin had vanished through (would he calm himself and apologise, Jen wondered, or would he do well to stay out of his way until then?) that Jen heard the jingle of keys in a lock. He dusted the crumbs from his shirt and got to his feet, for while he didn't know who he was expecting to walk through that door - Ardea or Iktin, probably - it paid to look presentable. City people liked that.
He certainly hadn't been expecting Rosa.
"Jen?" The door closed behind her, and he realised she wasn't carrying keys. She fidgeted with her fingers, looking all around the dim room. Jen stood by the table and hoped that whatever he wanted, it would be a brief visit. "Are you fine in here?" she said.
She looked around again. "If that's what you say..."
"If you've come here for something, get it over with," said Jen. Two arguments were in one afternoon weren't worth considering, and after what she'd done in the forest... well, he wasn't going to think of that until he decided how he felt about it.
She walked over to the furthest corner and gestured for him to follow. "Here," she said, in a low whisper. Jen joined her.
"What?" he said.
"I need to talk about last night."
"Oh," Jen said, keeping his voice as quiet as he good given the subject. "You mean when you shot at me?"
"Yes." She looked up - she was much shorter than he was - and met his gaze. "I shot to miss."
When she was finished, Iktin met her and led her away. She didn't tell him what they'd said, only that she'd enquired about Jen's well-being. Here and now was only a detail. She was too busy thinking of the events of the previous morning.
"And Rosa, was it? Could you stay for a moment? I'd like to talk, if you can."
"Yes," she said. She could already see what Jen had done. It was something she'd learnt a long time ago, something Jen had almost certainly done to win his life. Feed the suspicious, give them what they want, and they'll back off. She thought she'd left all that behind.
"I understand that you had some involvement with those two. Did you know about Jen's situation?"
Rosa glanced around the chamber. "No, Lord Ardea."
She didn't tell him what she thought of it.
"Do you know why I'm asking?"
"No, Lord Ardea."
He smiled, as she watched him in his seat. "I'm concerned about you. I suppose this is a bad time, but I should tell you I've known who you are since you arrived."
The door was behind her, and she and Ardea were alone. If she moved quickly, he might not know she was one until it was too late. All she needed was to pick up Cinn, and..
...and Jen must have thought of this too, and, through the haze of sleeplessness, come to the same conclusion. She didn't move, and didn't protest. She didn't ask "How could you know that?" or "You're wrong." She forced down every urge to run, and smiled, though there was nobody to see.
"Please don't worry about it," he said. "I've met your family. I'm under the assumption that you left for a reason, and as such, I'm not interested in returning you."
And, if she thought back, she could remember a day back in Fellstar Peak, when a strange Luccani man climbed the mountain to ascend to the seat of Kastek under her father's blessing, and how her family performed the rites as they should, though they whispered and shook their heads and thought he couldn't know... "I left with their blessing," she said, and that was not a lie, if she said nothing about the gun, or the hunting dogs, or the garden with its peach tree that never bore any peaches.
"Rosa," he said, "if you don't believe me, and you think I would send you back, would I not have done so by now?"
"You might have your reasons."
"My reasons," Ardea said, "are that I tasked myself long ago to ensure the well-being of Kastek. One of you is an oddity. Three of you might be a pattern. Could you come over here?" He held out his arm. "I'm afraid I don't find it as easy to get up as I used to."
She obeyed, stepping forward to let him take her arm and lever himself up against her weight. His hands felt thin under her sleeve. "Is that better?" she asked.
"Yes, it is. Now, there is another reason I can't just throw you out. When you arrived, you gave me some of your coins, remember?"
"Stake money," she said. It was an unusual concept, and one that her mother and aunts would surely mumble about amongst themselves when they sat down to discuss the events of the outside world. She thought back again, to that day in Fellstar, her father proclaiming him the guardian and ruler of Kastek, and wondered if he'd remembered her. But he couldn't - she'd been hidden away beside the rest of her family, and there was no way he could have seen her. But a man like Ardea surely heard everything, sooner or later, and some of those mumblings and whispers must have reached his ears in the end, if only from his comment about leaving for a reason. He spoke to her as if he knew what it was. But a good guess would get you close, she thought.
"Yes. And as long as I have that money, you belong under Kastek's protection as well as its rule. As do they."
"You could take it back."
"I could, but there are some things that I don't know." With his free hand, as he steadied himself against her, he fished into a deep pocket somewhere in his robe, and opened his palm to reveal three coins. "These are the coins they gave me. Do you know what they are?"
Rosa stared. They were no coins that she had ever seen. They bore no denomination, not even an inscription that might have let her guess where they came from. The only design she could make out was a faint branching design, like an ancient cobweb stretched and deformed into an interweaving, organic texture, and there was no pattern she could discern, though each one appeared the same. "No," she said.
"These are the coins given to me by the brothers."
"They're not Rhusavi."
"No," Ardea said. "Do you understand now? The daughter of a great house shows up in my city and will not give her true nature, and that is a strange thing. Two brothers ask for shelter from the winter and one is tarnished, two strange things. But when they give me coins that nobody can decipher, that is a pattern. You see, Rosa Jakinti, I would not fault you for running away. These affairs of ruling become more complex year on year."
Dhaymin spoke with Jen again the next day, but their meeting was brief and their voices curt. The boy had made up his mind, and Dhaymin had taught him too well, because there was no way he was convincing him otherwise. Dhaymin wondered if this was how Sarn must have felt, whenever Dhaymin said something he didn't approve of.
But what he did know, as much as he hated to admit it, was that Jen was right... probably right. He didn't know what Ardea would have done if they'd refused, and even if their imprisonment was a formality, he knew what beast hunters did to people who ran. So the days, such as they were, fell into a fixed pattern. He and Jen spent much of their time sleeping while the other was awake. Time blurred, with nothing to tell what was day and what was night. He was buried away in his stone cell, surrounded by darkness, silence, and very little to do.
Nothing he'd do in company, anyway. But even that grew dull after a while.
It was boredom that consumed his waking hours, not fear, and perhaps it was boredom when he opened up his pack, rummaged to the bottom, and found his fingers clasping a familiar, intricately carved wooden box.
He sat on the edge of his bed, turning it in his hands and listening to the contents move about. The sound of it was as familiar to his ears as the carvings, worn smooth many years ago by his father's hands, were to his fingers. They rattled like stones, sliding around with every tilt. His fingers reached the clasp, feeling their way over the edge, and stopped.
What was he going to do with the contents?
A jangle of keys, in the distance, snapped him out of contemplation, and he put the box back in its customary position at the very bottom of his pack. He would have stayed where he was too, but curiosity compelled him to open the door and step into the main hall.
"Dhaymin? Is Jen there?"
"Rosa?" He recognised her voice, and it wasn't such a surprise to hear it. Jen had told him she'd been here before, and sometimes, while drifting to or out of sleep, he'd heard them talking. Jen had reassured him about her shot, but he didn't argue either way. It was simply another situation that his brother had made his mind up over. "He's asleep. Give him a little while."
"May I wait for him?"
"If you like." Dhaymin rested his hand on the door handle, listening to her footsteps on the stone floor, and something sliding out of its place on one of the shelves. "Got a book there?"
"Do you mind?"
"No," Dhaymin said. He would have closed the door, shut himself away, and gone to sleep, but deep inside, he thought of more trackless days, passing him by until he lost count, and let go, letting it swing back as he pulled up a chair. "Though... you could do something for me, if you like."
"If you'd be kind," Dhaymin said, sitting down and wondering if there was any pine tea left, "would you read it to me, as well?"
When Jen opened the door, stepping into the slivers of mid-morning sun that streamed through the deep cut slit windows, he was greeted by an unusual sight. "Wasn't expecting to see both of you," he said.
Rosa looked up from the book she'd been reading aloud, while Dhaymin sat beside her and a pot of pine tea steamed away between them. "We were nearly finished," she said.
Dhaymin's chair scraped across the floor. "Yes," he said, "and maybe I should-"
"No," Jen said. It took only an instant to tell him what had been happening, an instant in which he realised exactly why Dhaymin was still here. "Finish it. Don't you both want to know the end?"
Dhaymin left shortly after the end, with his usual swift words and lack of fanfare. Jen didn't argue. He opened his mouth, to say he was sorry, but his brother was gone before he could manage the words. He apologised to Rosa instead, once they were alone.
"That you had to see us like that."
"You're brothers. I think that's normal."
"Not that much." Jen gazed at the closed door. "We've been angry before, but... not this long. And I shouldn't burden you with it."
It didn't help that, when he sat with Rosa, Jen felt as though here were navigating some farway sea, and Dhaymin knew the way far better than he ever could. There were things Dhaymin had talked about that were suddenly starting to make a lot of sense. There were even things from his long dead aunt's stash of novels that were starting to make sense.
"Jen," Rosa said, closing the book and placing it on the table. "Why did you say yes to Ardea?"
That wasn't the question he'd been expecting. But she'd visited every day since his imprisonment, and every time, she had that look in her eyes that he saw now, as if she were constantly seeking an escape from the walls around her. "Because... well." He leaned against the table, elbows on its surface and his chin cupped in his hands. "To tell you the truth, I was so tired I'd have told him anything. Besides, what difference would it have made if I'd said no? He'd still have locked me up. Probably without any books."
"So a choice where you don't have a choice." Rosa smiled, but it was weak and hesitant. "When I was a girl, we had a garden with a peach tree. I used to love spending time in that garden, but the tree never grew any peaches. I began to wonder if you could call it a peach tree at all, because how could it be a peach tree if it didn't have any peaches?"
"The same way you call a choice a choice when you don't have one?"
"Yes. Which is why..." She looked away. One hand gripped the tabletop, fingers tapping against the wood. "I'm sorry, Jen. I didn't have a choice either."
Steam rose from the cup in Jen's hands. The day outside had grown grey and overcast, or so he guessed from the dullness of the light that now filtered into the sealed chamber. He should be surprised, he told himself, but then he asked why. There had to be some reason she'd been able to visit, and knowing it was more of Ardea's doing cleared so much up.
"I wouldn't worry," he said. "But I don't know any more about the coins than I told you. If truth be told, I only used them because I didn't have anything else to offer at the time. I wasn't expecting him to accept them."
"And if I tell Ardea that?"
"I think he'll find another reason to let you see me. Look at where we're sitting here. Have you ever seen a cell like this before?"
"They're usually... smaller." She smiled again, that hesitant one she'd used before. "I don't think he was expecting you to know."
"It doesn't worry you that he asked me to keep an eye on you?"
"Considering I was expecting him to kill me," Jen said, "I'm not worried about much any more." He paused, a little surprised at what he'd said, and when he replayed it in his mind, he found that it was true. I'm not worried, he thought, trying out the words in the safety of his head. Maybe worried about Dhaymin, or what he would do when spring came, but at what was unfolding in front of him... no. "Not about the other thing, either."
"How many people know that?"
"I didn't. Until you told me." Rosa's family had been a surprise, that he could say. But when he tried to tell himself, here in front of me is the daughter of Lord Jakinti, he couldn't see anyone other than Rosa. He knew of Fellstar Peak, but he knew it as a distant place, one that he had never seen and would almost certainly never see, and that would be the same no matter where Rosa was, no matter where she went when spring came... but there was something he wasn't going to think too hard about. Not yet, anyway. "I can't say I didn't lie to you. My father isn't missing and we're not looking for him. He's dead."
"Is that... a bad thing?"
"I don't know," Jen said, remembering some of the words she'd used to describe her father. "And my mother's not dead. Well, the last time I saw her she was almost on fire, but I don't think a little thing like that's going to kill her."
"So you're looking for..." She waved a hand.
"I see why you'd stay with the missing father story."
"But I'd rather.." Jen nibbled at his lower lip, wondering what to say. "Thank you."
"After I told you all that?" she said.
She hadn't told another person since leaving home. Ardea might have found out, but she'd never meant it to happen.
When I was a little girl, I had this game I'd play. An imaginary friend, I think. I met a beast-hunter, and I told myself she would come back for me and we'd go on all these adventures. So I waited. But of course, she never came back. So I went out on my own, because nobody was coming for me. I took a gun and two hunting dogs and left it all behind, because there wasn't anything for me but a family who told me I was mad so many times I began to believe them.
And he'd nearly said she was mad, but he stopped himself, because if he just turned her words around and took out her imaginary hunter and put books and learning in their place, he heard himself...
He shuffled closer, his chair scraping against the stone floor, until it met hers, and took her hand in his."Especially after you told me all that," he said.
And the word grew even more complicated.
As complicated as his life had become, the moment Jen had been anticipating (curious, looking forward to, dreading), did not come for a little while longer. It happened on another visit, some days after, while the early afternoon sun streamed through the slit windows, deceptively bright and warm for the middle of winter.
He should have asked Dhaymin what to do, but even if they had been on better terms, he knew he wouldn't. Some things were too difficult to ask. So things progressed on their own. He and Rosa hid from that golden sun, retreating into his room to talk by lamplight alone. He felt the thrill when they lay down together, arms wrapped around one another, when he could forget about all the pressing details of his life. He could put them all to one side, because at that moment there was nothing more than a tiny room, a lamp and a bed, and Rosa. He was alone with her in their own private world, and nothing could break through.
It went on as he thought it must. They would lie together, and there'd be kissing, and then he could feel skin against his own once they'd pulled one another's clothes off. Her finger was tugging at his chest wraps, crooked under the fabric. And then it fell away, and he felt cool air on his skin, suddenly exposed to her hands. They sat, both in a crouch and face to face, staring at one another, and he wondered if she was thinking the same as himself, if this was the point where all those things he'd never understood were about to make sense.
"Something wrong?" she said.
"No! I'm just a little... not every day you.." He touched the heavy cloth he kept bound over his upper arm. That stayed, even if he was willing to bare his chest in trust. "I'm not used to this," he admitted.
"Neither am I. Let's get used to it?" She took his hand, and drew closer. He could stay here, Jen thought, stay with his arms wrapped around her soft, ample body, and they need do no more. That would be enough...
She pulled him gently downwards, so they lay side by side again. Her leg draped over his... and then she stopped.
"No," she said.
"I don't think you want to." She pulled back a little, propped up on one arm.
"No? I don't... I mean." He looked down, and felt himself grow hot. "Is... that it? Because I'm sure I can-"
"If this was a bad time, why didn't you say?"
"What about you?"
"What about you?"
"That's... that's not it." Not important, he wanted to say, but he couldn't bring the words forth. I let you down, he thought. He took a fold of blanket in his hand, staring at the rough, woven pattern, avoiding her gaze. He wanted her back, holding him. He wanted her skin against his, and no more, and he did not deserve any of it. A voice, unheard save for inside his head, screamed accusations of selfishness. He could not put aside his own thoughts for anyone, not even her. "Try again. Please. Maybe once I've done it-"
Rosa sat up, swinging her legs off the edge of the bed, so that her back was turned to him. "If you aren't enjoying it," she said, "I'm not either."
"Another time. If you want. Not now." She looked back over her shoulder, and brushed aside a lock of hair. "It's fine. I'm not angry. I... I know what it looks like, when you're somewhere you'd... rather not be."
He sat up too, and the unheard voice told him that of all the things he should be feeling now, relief wasn't one of them. "And if I don't?" was what he wanted to say, but he couldn't, lest she get up and walk away, never to be seen again. "I never wanted to," he said, at last, as he tried to ignore the trembling that ran through his body. "Not now, I mean. I never did. Not as long as I could remember. I thought if I tried, I'd understand."
She looked at him, puzzlement all over her face, and he tensed, waiting for her anger and disbelief. "Jen," she said, laying a hand on his shoulder, "it's fine. All fine. But you look a mess!" She smoothed down a few wayward strands of his hair. "Put some clothes on. Maybe you'll feel better."
He nodded, and stood up, searching the floor amidst the clothing they'd tossed aside. He found his chest wraps, thrown in an unceremonious heap, and bent over to pick them up. He'd worry about everything else later, when his legs stopped shaking. "You can stay," he said. "Stay and..." He waved a hand, a quick gesture that indicated they both knew how the line was meant to end. Growing up with little to read beyond a dead aunt's collection of novels had given him plenty of grounding in what people did in situations like this, even if they'd never covered his own predicament. "Don't mind." He stood up again, holding out the cloth in both hands.
Rosa didn't move. "Jen," she said. "Stay there."
"Because there's something on your back."
Jen froze, his chest wrap stretched between his hands. "What d'you mean, on my back?" They'd been through this before! The marks were on his arm, and there was no mistaking them.
"More like your shoulder," Rosa said. "No, your other shoulder - yes, there, move your hand, you're on top of it now!" Jen found himself contorted in an effort to look at his own shoulder blade. There was something there, a pinkish mark, as if fresh blood was flowing right under his skin, but at this angle all he could make out were a few faint marks creeping upwards. "That? Looks like I lay down on something."
"No," she said. "It's the coins."
He looked again, and there it was. Even from this angle, even though it was as pink and faint as a healing wound, he could make out spidery, weblike structures, spanning over his shoulder and back like an elaborate ritual scar.
"Where did you say you got those coins, again?" Rosa went on.
"I told you all I know!" But he remembered sitting in a wagon on a snowy evening, the smile on Numbers' face and the glint in her eye as she laid them before him. Three coins, one for each guess... and then she'd spoken his name.
Suddenly aware of how little he was wearing and the cold air that wove around his body, he took back his chest wrap from where it had fallen on the floor, and bound the cloth tight around himself. "You should tell Ardea."
"What? I can't tell him!"
"It's what he asked you to do."
"That's no reason to do it!" She sprung from the bed, still wearing nothing at all.
Jen pulled on more clothes. "I need to know too," he said.
"Don't you think," Rosa said, picking up her own wrap, "that you're going to get yourself killed if you keep doing this?"
Jen whirled around. "Don't you think I know? My father, he... I... I saw what he did to people like me! This is the only place I've been where I didn't think someone was going to stab me on sight for... for that! If I get one chance to be treated close to normal, even if it's this, I just want to..." He stopped to pull his shirt on. The mark looked as if it should hurt, but he felt nothing when the cloth brushed against it. No wonder he'd missed it all this time, since however long it had been there. How was he supposed to know when he'd gotten it? Even if it was linked to Numbers and her coins, she hadn't done anything he could think of that would result in such a mark, had she?
He couldn't think of this. He put it all away, and pulled the shirt over his head.
Rosa looked up at him, and back to the floor. "I hate playing along," she said, her voice level and quiet.
"So do I." He held up a hand, unsure if he should brush aside her hair where it had fallen over her face. "I think."
She took his wrist in her hand, and gently pulled it down. "Then go."
You don't want me to, he thought. But his mind was made up, and if he stayed here he'd be thinking of those coins and that mark at all the worst times. He pulled his boots on, stepped back out into the last of the afternoon sun, and made for the door. He'd never even tried it until today.
"I need to talk to Ardea," he said.
The voice from the other side, much to his surprise (and somewhat to his relief, given what he'd nearly tried just before), was Lakedi's, not Iktin's. "Yes," she said. "I think you do."
He let her lead, Rosa following on, as she took him down through Kastek's tunnels, a journey he couldn't remember from before. He'd been so tired the last time he had no idea where in the city he'd been, though before long he concluded he had to have been near the peak. That was not so important. The way Lakedi had spoken to him, though...
He knew something was not what he'd expected when he entered the chamber with the smashed dais. Ardea looked up at the sound of his approach. "Is that you, Jen?"
"I need to talk to you about something," he said.
"I rather think you do," said Ardea. He got to his feet, shaky, but firm. "This would be about the beast sighting by the lake, wouldn't it?"
Wind blew through Jen's hair, so cold that it nipped at his fingers and ears. The sun was nearly gone now, and only a faint gold haze around the mountains gave away its presence. Far below, Kastek was an orderly series of lights, but beyond, only a few scattered points indicated farms and fisheries around the city. Further still, there was nothing but dark, snow coated forest.
He rubbed his hands together, but it was for little against the wind. Ardea kept close to the torches, Iktin guarded the door, and Lakedi had left to comb the lake shores in his place. If Jen wanted to escape, there was only one way he could do it. He touched the balcony wall, and looked down. "Out there?" he said.
Iktin still didn't believe that he didn't know, but he was used to that now. Jen never had a chance to ask about the mark, and he wasn't sure now was a good time to bring it up. "I told you," Iktin said. "The last sighting was an hour before sunset, and it was stalking the fish stocks again. I don't know any more." He didn't seem bothered by the cold, even though his hair was billowing in the wind and he'd just come back from that very site, but under that heavy cloak, Jen supposed he wouldn't be either. He looked at Iktin's hands, protected by thick gloves, and wished for a pair of his own. His fingers had turned red and raw, and he rubbed his hands again, to little avail. "You," Iktin continued, "on the other hand-"
"Iktin." Ardea's voice was as firm as stone. "We do not treat guests so badly."
"Guests," Iktin said, "also respect their hosts."
"And we'll see later if he does. Or does not."
Jen didn't listen, and gazed back out at the forest. The sun had finally vanished behind the mountains, and now there was nothing but the first stars and a few points of light close to the road.
"What if you can't do it?" Rosa said. She was leaning over the edge, watching by his side.
"There's no can't in this," Jen said, and the words were out of his mouth before he recalled where he'd heard them - as a favoured phrase of his father's. It's like you said, was what he wanted to say. It's one of those times you don't have a choice. But with Iktin close by, he decided to stay quiet, and hope he'd tell her later. "I've seen other people do it."
"Was that before your father killed them?"
"If that's what you're running on," Rosa said, "you want this." She pulled at the fastenings on her coat and took it off, holding it out to Jen. "Easier to concentrate when you're not freezing. And someone forgot to bring theirs."
"I didn't think this was going to happen," Jen said, but he accepted it anyway, and slid his arms inside. It was way too short for him, and barely reached to his knees, but at least it wasn't tight, and it had good, deep pockets to hide his hands in. "No sign of Dhaymin, then." His brother had probably been asleep, and he'd end up sleeping right through all this.
"Do you even know what you're going to do?"
Jen looked her in the eyes. "No," he said. He looked back at Iktin and Ardea, waiting, turned back to Rosa, and took her hand in his, giving it a firm squeeze.
He sat down, even though the balcony was slick and frozen, and he could feel the cold seeping through Rosa's coat, and closed his eyes. He wondered what might happen if he stood up now, and told Ardea he had no idea what he was doing, no idea how he was supposed to drive the creature away.
Jen closed his eyes, took a deep breath of icy air, and hoped he knew.
When he opened his eyes, she was there.
The den smelled of dirt and blood and hair, lending an oppressive weight to the air around him. The beast blotted out the light, letting only a few rays of weak sun to penetrate inside. His body lay on the frozen ground, curled up in a last, failed attempt to fend off the cold. The beast opened her mouth, and her jaws tugged at his arm. Bone cracked and flesh pulled away, and hot blood spilled onto the ice.
Jen knew that he had seen all this before.
He knew, then, that he could wake, or whatever the word was right now, but to do so would mean failure. And, while he didn't know what he was doing here, he knew that the last time around, it ended too soon. So he watched, disembodied, as the creature tore him open.
It felt like taking a beating, or a harsh word. You could scream and fight back, but it wouldn't stop the hands or the voices, so why try? You kept quiet, you didn't protest, and you got it over with. Even if it killed you. Even if it just had. He watched as she tore the muscles from his bones and gulp them down as though he were a prized kill. Her muzzle and claws were caked with red stains, and the den smelled of a butcher's workshop, but he did not turn away. Not when he cracked open his ribs, not even during the pang when she pulled out and devoured his own lungs in front of him. When there was nothing left but bones, she cracked them open in her massive jaws, and the splintering echoed throughout, and still he did not look away.
Only when she had gnawed every last bone down to splinters did she lurch to her feet and turn to go. Freezing wind rushed into the den, and Jen was alone with no more than a dull red stain scattered with little white fragments.
When he looked outside, she was still lumbering away like a well fed bear, trailing bloody paw marks in the snow, and that was when he found his voice. "Wait," he said. "I'm not finished."
She turned back, to look at him. Her yellow eyes gleamed, and he woke.
His eyes saw by the light of the moon and stars. The lake was a smooth expanse of silver ahead beyond the snow-coated pines, and its shored smelled of food. Jen felt an empty stomach twist at its promise, and paw sinking into the deep snow. Ears swivelled at the sound of footsteps, one so faint that he was sure he wouldn't have noticed - not before, anyway. There it was again, a crunch of ice, closer now.
He held back, and waited. The food was so close he could have ignored the danger and rushed ahead, driven only by his stomach, but Jen, at least, knew to stay still. He was still there, buried inside hair and claws, waiting for the right moment.
Another light crunch, and a figure stepped into the moonlight.
The beast raised her head and bared her teeth, ready to fight if needs be for her food, but Jen, though he didn't know what to make of all the smells and sounds coming his way, knew who they faced.
Last time, he'd tried words. They worked, in a way. But as they watched, he took control, so gently she didn't notice. She paid no attention to words. She paid attention to sights and sounds and smells, the feel of the winter sun on her back as she trudged through an icy forest in search of prey. Jen, still as calm and still as if he were putting all the bad thoughts away for later, guided her with the lightest touch.
Only when she turned away, when the lake was behind them, when he was sure there was no sight of sound of Lakedi, did he let go. The beast body gave away to darkness, and he woke.
The first thing Jen knew for certain was that if he didn't move soon, his backside was going to freeze to the floor. He tried to stand, and felt something pressing down, holding him... and then they hooked under his arms, and he realised they weren't holding him at all, but helping him to his feet. There was Rosa, but the other one...
He opened his eyes, tried to make sense of what was around him.
"Jen? That you? Tell me something we'd only know."
He blinked, as Dhaymin's face came into focus in the firelight. "Not... in front of everyone else. Rosa? Whass' he doing here?"
"What am I doing? Listen to him! Goes and does this and then asks why his own brother comes to see how he is. Figuratively speaking and all, mind."
Jen let them lead him inside, flanked by Iktin and Ardea, and the doors closed behind him. At once the icy wind stopped, and as the world was shut out, he came back to himself, remembering what he had done. "Safe," he said. "It's gone. Ask Lakedi."
Maybe Ardea heard, and replied. Maybe Iktin had a few choice words for him. He wasn't sure, but when he felt Rosa and Dhaymin steady him, and when he felt their arms holding him up and close to them, he didn't care.
This wasn't Ardea's meeting chamber.
It was a small space, enough for a family to gather in and be comfortable, its walls lined with creamy stone rather than the usual grey. A fire crackled in a little hearth, and huddled around it were chairs and couches, each one carved from pale pine and decorated with thick cushions. Here sat Ardea, a steaming cup of pine tea held in his hands, as though ready for a quiet evening with a friend.
"Is that you, Jen?"
"Then sit down. And before you ask, the answer is that I am tired of that meeting hall." Jen did as he was told, sinking into the cushions as Ardea gestured to a low table between their chairs. "There are still some honey cakes left," he said. "Take what you want."
Jen pulled away the cloth to reveal a tray of cake slices. Not wishing to seem ungrateful, he picked one up. It was a little sticky, but sweet, and he wondered if Ardea would mind if he took one or two more.
"Now let me get to what you're thinking of," Ardea said. "The mark."
"Yes?" He'd finally managed to tell Ardea about that, somewhere between remembering who he was and waiting for Lakedi. Maybe, he thought, as he licked traces of honey from his fingers, he should have stayed quiet.
"I don't know what it is."
"I'm sorry. If I could, I would have given you more. I know you might be thinking that I know things, that I have some wisdom hidden from far away. No doubt my own family thought the same of what was happening here, that they'd find answers to the things happening in the Isles. The truth is, everything looks like wisdom if you go far enough. Which leads me to the other thing you said. Are you hungry now?"
"A little." It had mostly faded, because it had never been his hunger to begin with, but he remembered being trapped in the snow, knowing that the next meal would only come if he fought with all his being, and when that happened he felt a knot deep in his stomach.
"Take another cake, then. I brought them here for a reason. And of course because I like them, but that's secondary to the whole thing."
Jen did so, and took a small bite, wanting to enjoy this one a little more rather than gulping it down. What could be more human than enjoying a cake? He wondered if Ardea thought that, too.
"I've thought about what you said," Ardea went on. He paused, to drink the last of his tea, and put the cup aside. "I think we can manage to leave a little meat at the forest edge. Enough to keep it going."
"What?" Jen paused, mid-bite, and swallowed the mouthful before it had a chance to go the wrong way. "No, you don't need to-"
"So you say that it is outside of its normal home, awake at a time it should not be, and so hungry it has taken to stealing our fish, and you think we don't need to? Jen, let me tell you something. We're alone in here. Someone might come running if I called loudly enough, and equally they might not. Beast or no beast, you're young and strong and could strike me down and walk away."
"Jen, of course you wouldn't!" Ardea laughed, a quiet, understated sound. "You won't, and I know you wouldn't, because you've no reason to do so. Your imprisonment was a bit of a necessary snag, but knowing you could have left at any time, did you? Incidentally, how did you like the books I sent up? Do you want some new ones?"
Jen opened his mouth to ask what all this had to do with feeding a monster, but stopped. Ardea could not have been any more different to his father, offering cakes to a tarnished man, and yet, underneath those smiles, he saw a shared link between the two, something he'd never noticed before. He remembered more of his father's words, words that had nothing to do with revenge or glory or hunting. "Because... I don't have a reason to hurt you?"
"I never gave you one."
"So you don't want to give it any reason to attack the lakes any more."
"Of course," Ardea went on, "you know this can't go on forever, but provided you leave in spring, there's no reason I can't hold it off for now." He reached over to the table, took one of the cakes for himself. "Of course, sometimes it's not easy to balance what everyone wants, that would be why I had to imprison you at all." He nibbled at a corner, seemed lost in thought for a moment before continuing. "But this, I can do. Iktin may not like it, but Iktin is an old friend and once saved my life. I've earned the right to annoy him."
"You sound like Dhaymin."
"Perhaps it's the same thing. And if I can't help to fix what happened to you, I can understand that you're trying. So when you do go south, that's all I have to say to you. Don't do anything stupid."
Jen smiled. "I'll try not to."
And now it was several hours past sundown, and the slit windows gave no more light, but the lamps were warm and gold, and though Jen was ready to sleep, he thought there might be more to the evening. When the sun went down, that meant bed could not be far away, but in the depths of winter, there were too many hours to spend on sleep alone. Once the beasts had been driven back into the forest and the fire was burning away, that was the time for stories and chatter and togetherness. Such evenings had been rare at home, but he remembered with fondness.
"What do you think he wants?" Rosa said. Dhaymin had vanished into his room, saying something about "something I wanted to do," before he left.
"With Dhaymin?" Jen said. "Personally, I've found it's best not to ask." He didn't care anyway. The food was sparse and the tea was plain, but it was winter and these things couldn't be helped. Dhaymin was Dhaymin again, and he... whatever he had done, he was sure he was still Jen, and there was Rosa, and everything else mattered no more.
Dhaymin emerged a little while later, holding something Jen couldn't make out at first. When he sat down in the lamplight's circle, Jen got a better look. It was a box, a little longer than his hand and about half as wide as that, and carved with an intricate, interlocking pattern. He felt like he should know it, but he was sure he'd never seen it in Dhaymin's pack before.
"What's that?" said Rosa.
"Something I never opened and want to," Dhaymin said, laying it on the table. "I was going to, but I think this is the sort of thing that needs eyes. Jen? All yours."
"What is it?" Jen took it in his hands, and inside there was a hollow crack as the contents slipped and moved. He should know, and yet his memory failed him.
"Father gave it to me. Long time ago, now. You were really little, I don't think you'd have remembered even if you saw. Said I was to keep it safe and never open it unless the family was in danger. Always wondered what was there, but I never thought it was right to open it. But he's gone now. Gone from here and gone from my mind. Might as well crack it open. Could be something useful in there."
Gone from my mind, Jen thought. Was that how it felt, when the echoes of his words stopped rising in his head to tell him when he did something wrong? Maybe he felt it too.
"Oh. I'll go, if this is a family thing," Rosa said, and her chair scraped the floor.
"Nah," said Dhaymin. "If I wanted you gone, I'd have asked you ages ago. Sit down."
Jen ran his fingers along the edge, looking for the catch. "Do you think we learnt something today?"
"You mean something about how it pays to play along?" said Dhaymin.
"But not always?" put in Rosa. "Or only with Ardea? Or that monsters need food too?"
"We learnt a few things that go together if you think of them the right way and sometimes work and sometimes don't?" said Dhaymin.
"If you want," said Jen. His nails found what he was looking for, and he tugged at the clasp holding it shut.
True to Dhaymin's word, the box had not been opened for many years, and the hinges were a little stiff, but it came open with a little effort, and he put it back on the table so that Rosa could see. As the lid rose, something glinted inside.
"Suppose it's too much to ask that it's a mystic weapon that kills all monsters?" Dhaymin said.
"It's... jewelry?" said Jen. The first thing he pulled out was a wolf's head clasp, the twin of the one Dhaymin usually wore. The second looked like a bracelet, full of slightly translucent aquamarine beads strung in a loop, but it was far too small to fit around anything more than a couple of his fingers. "I think this is a baby bracelet," he said, handing it to Dhaymin so he could feel it.
"I don't know a lot about your father," Rosa said, "but I wouldn't have thought him the type to box away something like that."
"It's ours," Dhaymin said.
"It's ours. We probably both wore this. For protection, see? He was the type to box this away. For family's sake. This," and here Dhaymin laid it back on the table, "is for the children he wanted us to have."
"Never open unless the family was in danger," Jen repeated. "Because..." They already knew, but Rosa didn't. "Family was the most important thing to him. Or he always said so." He was forced to admit he'd never been sure if he believed all that. He had seen his father in too many rages to think of him as someone who cared for family, and yet, so many of those moments had been times when he or Dhaymin had been in danger. Jen had seen him tear down whole rooms full of people, only to keep them safe. "I think... I think he wanted to be sure there'd still be a family once he was gone."
That raised even more questions, and more thoughts, and he looked at Rosa for a second, only to avert his gaze. That, he told himself, was a very bad idea right now...
"There's something else in here," he said, glad of the distraction. That something turned out to be four things, though so long inside the box had tangled them together and it took a little creative unknotting to separate them. They were necklaces, full of big, ornate beads strung out along black cords, and no two were the same. These, at last, tugged at his memory. "Dhaymin," he said, "I think these are Bala's." He hardly dared say her name, but it made more sense than he cared to admit.
"Someone we knew," Dhaymin said, and Jen wasn't sure if he was musing to himself or explaining to Rosa. Perhaps it was a bit of both. "Long time ago. Too long ago." He picked one up. It was strung with large, rough, chunky beads, a dull earthy green in colour. "She did say she used to deal in protection charms and the like. Most of them fake, of course, but Father must have known that..."
"But if the bracelet..." Jen said. "He wouldn't put a fake in." Father might be full of posthumous surprises tonight, but Jen was sure he'd never place a fake charm inside something so significant. "But why four?"
"Jen, how are you so thick? Think about it!"
"...Oh." Jen looked at the three remaining, and laid them out on the table. He looked back up at Rosa, and for the second time, wondered if the room was a little warmer than it should be.
She picked one up, strung with beads of a deep red, veined in black, and lifted it to her neck, to admire it. "What do you think?" she said.
"I.... yes," Jen said. His hand closed over another, and out of the corner of his eye he could see that it was full of pale blue and green beads, like the sea on a clear day, but he hardly noticed. Only the sound of Dhaymin, picking up the last, snapped him out of it. "I'm sorry," he said.
Dhaymin rubbed the beads with his fingers, feeling their shape. "Nah," he said. "It's not a problem. Never was, either of you."
And now it was night, and the lamps were extinguished and the bed was warm and soft, and so was Rosa, and things might just be perfect, at least for tonight.
Would have been perfect, if he did not remember what had happened only a few hours ago in this same bed, but Rosa never asked, and he wasn't sure if that meant it was down to him. "Earlier..." he said.
"Don't say you're sorry," Rosa said. "We'll make it."
"And if I don't want to? Ever?" They said it was different, with the right person. They said he would understand, but he had found her, and it made no difference. Perhaps if he ever wanted... but no, he reminded himself, that was not a good idea now, maybe not a good idea ever, even if that thought brought up a pang he'd never felt before. Besides that, this was all he wanted, her in the dark, lying beside him, and the knowledge that they'd wake up by one another's sides again. And if it wasn't what she wanted, where did that leave him?
"Then I don't know," she said, "but we'll make it." She took his hand, and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Good night, Jen."
He closed his eyes. "Night, Rosa."
Maybe it was going to be perfect after all.