Actions

Work Header

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THREE

The fourth day of August in the 941st year a.g.l.

It's a beautiful summer day, with a glowing sun and with air just the right temperature – or so it seems to me. Everyone else in the patrol is praying for the autumn cool to arrive. Levander says that if I make one more remark about how much hotter it is in Koretia at this time of year, I may find myself being accidentally thrown off a cliff.

Levander is my new patrolling partner, and he comes eagerly to me for advice. It feels odd to be an old-timer now. But of course there are very few of us old-timers left, even fewer than there were at the beginning of our leave last winter.

Hoel is retired from army service; he gave a plausible reason for his departure, but we all know that he left because of Chatwin. Teague and Sewell were placed on trial in the court of the subcommander of the Emorian army; they faced the possibility of Dismissal with High Dishonor from the Chara's armies. Teague received a lesser sentence of Dismissal with Dishonor, and Sewell was found innocent since we all testified – those of us who were left – that he was in too much pain from his broken leg to realize that Wystan's letter about the approaching snow had gone undelivered. Sewell requested a transfer, though, since he couldn't face the thought of going back to the unit where four men died because of his injury. He is serving now as Wystan's orderly.

That leaves Quentin, Carle, Devin, Payne, and me to train the new men – plus Fowler, Carle's old partner, who has returned to duty. I was initially nervous at dealing with him; I not only stabbed him, but I took away his partner. Carle hasn't been my partner, though, since we returned to the mountains in April. Quentin split up all the old partnerships so that we could be paired with the new soldiers. In the day patrol are me and Levander, Carle and Manasseh, and Payne and Nahum, while in the night patrol are Quentin and Oro, Devin and Whittlsey, and Fowler and Sacheverell. Levander holds a double title: he is also a royal messenger, and he keeps his horse here to ride to the army headquarters, should there be any need for sending an immediate message – such as that supplies are low.

All of this has delayed the training I would normally have received by now in night patrolling, so Quentin has decided to transfer me into his half of the patrol next week. I'll be paired with Fowler. That will be the true test of whether Fowler has forgiven me.

o—o—o

The ninth day of August in the 941st year a.g.l.

I suppose that it simply took Fowler four months to get me alone so that he could reconcile us in the proper manner. It wasn't until today that he served out his insults.

We were close to the northern limits of our patrolling area, and I was concentrating all my efforts on keeping myself from sliding off the side of a mountain. Eight months have passed since I last spent an entire night on the mountains, and though we have a full moon at the moment, I am out of practice in the slide step that is required to negotiate the night-black slopes. Because of this, it took me some time to realize what Fowler was implying.

We had started with a polite conversation about the Koretian borderland, comparing it to the Emorian borderland, which Fowler has visited on a couple of occasions. Then we talked about intermarriage, and how this affects the range of skin colors that you find in both halves of the borderland, and then about the fact that Hamar had light skin, as do my sisters, since they all inherited my father's coloring.

"And what about you?" asked Fowler, grabbing me to keep me from slipping down a slope.

"Well, I look like my mother, obviously," I replied. "Oh, I could have inherited it from my father's side as well – his father was quite dark – but it's hard to say, really. I don't think my parents ever talked about it."

"No, I do not imagine that they did."

Something about Fowler's tone made me look up. We had reached a dip in the mountains and were close to the pass, so our voices were very soft, but whatever I had read in Fowler's whisper was also reflected in his face as he assiduously avoided my gaze.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, look," said Fowler. "I visited the Northern Port once – the port is located in the Daxion borderland, where the black border mountains touch the border between Daxis and Emor. It is a cosmopolitan city: you get people visiting there from Daxis, Koretia, Emor, and on up to the barbarian nations of the mainland. So naturally, the brothels there have to please all sorts of patrons, dark and light. I spent an afternoon in one of those brothels once, not for any sport of my own, but just out of curiosity to see what sort of girls the visitors picked. And after a while, I noticed a trend: nearly every light-skinned man who entered the brothel picked a light-skinned woman, and nearly every dark-skinned man who came there picked a dark-skinned woman. It was the same in reverse, too – the women were trying to attract the attention of the men who shared their color."

"But I don't understand what this has to do with—"

"Well, you see, it led me to conclude that any brown-skinned woman, given a choice, will pick a brown-skinned man. It stands to reason. Of course, she may find herself married to a light-skinned man for reasons of family matchmaking and so on, but if temptation should come her way . . . Well, who is to blame her, after all? It is in her nature."

I have been in Emor long enough now to know that, while dark-skinned is a neutral word, brown-skinned is considered offensive. It seemed to me, in the one part of me that remained calm, that Fowler need hardly have embellished his suggestion with such obvious abuse.

I placed my hand slowly upon my sword hilt and said, "Say that again."

Fowler grinned cheerfully at sight of this challenge. "Do not be so sensitive. This sort of thing happens a lot more than we would guess, I am sure. It is only in the borderland that we have proof that it occurs."

Well, I'd given him his chance. I pulled out my sword and started forward, saying, "You'll swallow those words before I'm through with you."

I stopped just short of Fowler, the reason being that he had not drawn his sword. He was looking at me with wariness and even, it appeared, astonishment, though for what reason I could not imagine; I had given him clear indication of what my intentions were if he didn't apologize. He said in a whisper that barely carried to me, "Put up your blade. Don't worry, I won't tell anyone this happened if you sheathe your sword now."

"Don't be such a coward!" Forgetting to keep my voice low, I heard my words bounce off the mountains opposite. "I gave you my challenge, and you accepted it. You can't back away now."

"Sheathe . . . your . . . sword." The intensity of Fowler's whisper puzzled me. In any case, I could hardly duel him if he were going to be such a coward as to refuse to fight. I was still trying to figure out what to do when I heard a long, high whistle from the mountain opposite us. It came from Devin, who was patrolling the area next to ours.

I whirled and was preparing to leap across the pass toward Devin, when I felt myself pulled short by Fowler, whose hand was holding me as a leash holds a dog. "Later," I said tersely. "Didn't you hear? That's the Immediate Danger whistle."

"By the law-structure, man, sheathe your sword!" said Fowler in a desperate whisper. "If you come near the lieutenant now with a naked blade, he'll cut your dagger-arm to shreds."

I stared at Fowler in bewilderment. Faintly I could hear Carle's whistle acknowledging the response of the day patrol, then Quentin's whistle requesting the location and source of danger. As I heard Devin whistle the hunted's name, I felt a chill across my back. Now I understood: Devin had seen me draw my sword against Fowler and thought that I was trying to murder him.

Quickly I sheathed my sword as Fowler sent out the Danger Past whistle. The full patrol would still respond, having been called, but at least they would not immediately attack the hunted. "Let me take care of this," Fowler whispered. "You just keep quiet."

"All we have to do is explain that we were duelling," I said, trying to remind myself that I was not really in trouble.

"Heart of Mercy, Adrian, are you longing to visit the Land Beyond? Keep your mouth shut."

There was a whistle so low that it could barely be heard. I braced myself but still jumped as ten men suddenly descended upon us, their swords all pointed toward me. I caught a quick glimpse of Carle's face – his eyes were cold and his expression hard – and then the moon slid under a cloud, and when it emerged again, I found myself facing the lieutenant. His sword-point was resting just below my breastbone.

There was a moment of silence that probably lasted no more than a heartbeat, but felt to me as though it stretched through the entire period of the Middle Charas. Without shifting his eyes from me, Quentin said softly, "Report, Fowler."

"I regret to report that it is a false warning, sir. Adrian and I had been talking about Koretian customs, and I asked Adrian to show me how Koretians challenge each other to duels. It was a thoughtless request; I apologize, lieutenant."

Quentin did not move his sword; nor did he signal the others to lower theirs. He said quietly, "Is this true, Adrian?"

I was thinking to myself that I ought to explain the real story, which was no worse than Fowler's tale and which was more likely to convince the keen-eyed soldier before me. But if I did so, Fowler would be punished for issuing a false report, so I said, "Yes, sir. I was showing him how Koretians duel."

The pause this time was definitely longer. Carle shifted his position slightly; he was already holding in his hand the strap to bind me. Then the lieutenant emitted a soft series of notes, and the swords lifted. As Quentin looked down to sheathe his sword, he said, "Fowler ought to have warned you, Adrian, that since Emorian duellers are charged with attempted murder, your demonstration might have been misinterpreted. I trust that you will be more careful in the future."

I felt my throat grow drier than the wind, only now understanding what danger I had escaped in the moment that Fowler sent his Danger Past signal. I managed to say, "Yes, sir. It won't happen again."

The other guards had already started to leave. Quentin exchanged a final, lingering look with Fowler; said, "Good hunting"; and slipped away.

o—o—o

The eleventh day of August in the 941st year a.g.l.

I didn't actually escape from a reprimand. Carle took me aside yesterday morning when I returned from my patrol and gave me a lengthy and singeing account of what he thought of my actions.

"You're just lucky that the lieutenant was willing to turn a blind eye to this," he said. "He doesn't do that very often, I can assure you."

"But I didn't know, Carle," I said miserably. "Everyone duels in Koretia – how could I know that it's unlawful in Emor?"

"You might have used the wits you were born with. Private vengeance is forbidden in Emor – after all these months, hasn't that penetrated your spirit yet? If someone has hurt you, you don't kill him; you enter a charge against him."

"What sort of charge?" I said angrily. "That he insulted me?"

Carle sighed. "If you must know, there's a law against insulting a free-man, though I wouldn't recommend that you invoke it against a fellow guard. Quentin would feel obliged to dismiss from the patrol whichever guard was found to be in the wrong. He can't have these types of enmities smoldering – not when our lives depend on each other. By the Sword, Adrian, I know that you come from a land where people burn one another alive over disputes that started with a dead chicken, but can't you control yourself better? You have to learn how to settle these matters without violence, or you'll never be an Emorian."

"So I'm supposed to let him say that I'm a bastard and my mother's a whore?"

"Better that, than that you should bring dishonor upon the patrol by drawing your sword against a fellow soldier."

Carle's voice had grown dark and stern. I stared down at my feet for a moment, trying to swallow back the sickness in my mouth, until Carle finally said in a voice filled with gentle exasperation, "Did it ever occur to you to encourage Fowler to repeat those remarks some place where Quentin would overhear them? I can tell you plain that there's a second man in this unit who would not care to hear it implied that a certain light-skinned soldier wasn't his true father."

I looked over at Carle; he was smiling now. I said, "If the lieutenant could make Fowler swallow his insults without duelling with him, than so can I. I just have to figure out how."

"When you find out, tell me," Carle responded. "I spent sixteen years living with a foul-minded man. Some men you can't reform; you just have to endure them. Think of it as one of the sacrifices you make for the Chara: you're helping keep peace in this land by not giving Fowler what he deserves."

As it happens, though, I didn't need Carle's advice in the end. Fowler was very pleasant to me during our patrol last night. I think the act of saving my life purged him of his resentment toward me. (Also, the weather has turned cooler, and everyone is in a better mood now.) He even apologized for his remarks, an apology I was quite ready to match with my own for threatening him. As Carle says, you can't afford to be enemies with a man who may be your only defense against a violent border-breacher.

o—o—o

The fourteenth day of August in the 941st year a.g.l.

I suppose that it has taken me this long to grasp what nearly happened to me last week. At any rate, I have started to have my old nightmares about being prey to my blood kin.

In a way, what happened the other night feels like a death shadow to me, showing what my life's last moments would be like if I returned to Mountside. The idea of dying no longer panics me – it can't, when I face death nearly every day – but the idea of being killed by those I love still makes me feel as though I'm trapped by blizzard winds. I can't expel from my mind the images I saw last week: Carle watching me with cold eyes, Quentin placing the sword against my chest, the other guards waiting in silence. And now those images are mingled with images of my blood kin hunting me, binding me, and cutting my throat – or delivering me over to the execution-fire. It is so much easier, somehow, to die at the hands of strangers.

I confessed all of this to Carle, and he says that he doesn't blame me for being scared – that he can't think of a worse fate than having a kinsman or friend proclaim your death.