The fifteenth day of May in the 943rd year a.g.l.
To Calder son of Victor:
My love and greetings, blood brother. I know that you will be surprised to receive this letter, as I do not know where your work has taken you this month, and in fact it seems likely that you will not be able to read this until we meet again. I have heard exciting news, though, and I am eager to share it with you.
My work has kept me in the borderland for several months now, and I have been impatient to return home to see you and my other friends. Yesterday, therefore, I was quick to finish my business, which involved visiting the market square at Blackpass. As I was turning away from the market stall where I had been transacting business, I caught sight of someone looking my way. I only saw him for a brief moment, and then he turned his face away, but I felt sure that it was someone I knew.
This made me very uneasy. As you know, my father and I did not part on good terms when I left my family home, and though I know that my father would not visit Blackpass during the present feud, it's possible that one of the younger members of my family – for example my brother-in-marriage – would be daring enough to visit here, now that Blackwood has said that he will not allow blood vows of vengeance to be fulfilled on the streets of his town. I therefore decided that it would be best to ascertain who had caught sight of me.
The man was several spear-lengths away. I stayed far enough behind him that he would not be able to notice that I was following him – for I have not forgotten, Calder, the tricks you taught me during our many hours of playing Jackal and Prey. Frustratingly, though, the man's back remained toward me as he went from stall to stall, examining the wares of a potter, exchanging a joke with a fruit merchant, paying for a bag of blackroot nuts. Finally I decided that I would have to circle around to the front of him, and so I put forward speed to accomplish this.
I am sorry to report, blood brother, that I seem to have been a poor student of your lessons, for I had no sooner started to rush forward than I crashed into the fruit merchant, who had just emerged from his stall with a basket full of limes.
By the time I had picked myself up, the man I had been hunting was out of sight, so I took the time to apologize to the fruit merchant and to help him pick up the limes that had not been immediately trampled by passersby.
Fortunately, he was a man of good humor and even refused to take money from me for his spoiled merchandise. As we hunted under people's sandals and boots for the scattered limes, I thought it best to fall into conversation with him – for as you know, Calder, I am very interested in learning what lesser free-men think about the present feud.
This seemed to be a day, though, when all my enterprises would be frustrated, for I discovered that the fruit merchant was far more interested in talking about his sister's young sons. By the time that the limes were salvaged, he had dragged me back to the stall to show me profiles that an Arpeshian artist had drawn of the boys. I learned far more than I ever wanted to about the daily lives of borderland boys.
My politeness, though, was rewarded when Morgan – for such was the fruit merchant's name – mentioned that his nephews were so mischievous that he had been forced to prevent them from spying upon the Jackal's thieves.
My hearing heightened then, for you know well, Calder, that I have long been interested in the god-man and in his activities in our land. Though the merchant seemed inclined at this point to turn the conversation toward the feeding habits of his youngest nephew, still a babe in arms, I managed to tear the story out from him.
It seems that the boys were wandering after dark during one recent evening – evidence, Morgan said, of how spirited the boys are – when they overheard a group of men talking in low voices in an alleyway. From the conversation that the boys heard, they became convinced that these men were none other than the famed Jackal's thieves, who have caused such trouble in recent months by committing thefts and pranks in the houses of the nobility, especially the new nobility. It appeared that this alleyway was a regular meeting point for the thieves. The boys later made plans to return to the alley, but fortunately Morgan learned of their plans and was able to dissuade them from their dangerous enterprise.
Once again, I was hard pressed to keep the conversation on its track – this time Morgan wanted to discuss the pranks that his nephews engage in – but I was able to elicit from him that he had not told anyone the boys' stories. No, not even his baron's soldiers – and here he raised his eyebrows, for I confess that I had momentarily forgotten how unlikely it was that he would do such a thing. After all, we Koretians are not like the Emorians, running off to soldiers for help every time a crime is committed.
Naturally, I asked Morgan where the alleyway was located. Until now, Morgan had told his story with a smile; he seems to be a naturally affable man, as is shown by the incident with the limes. But when he guessed that I wished to visit the alley myself, he grew greatly alarmed. "I know about you young men," Morgan said. (He is of about age thirty.) "You always seek excitement and danger. Believe me, the Jackal's thieves are not the type of men you want to be clashing your blades against – nasty lawbreakers that they are."
In the end, though, I was able to persuade the reluctant fruit merchant to give me the location of the alley, as well as the information that the previous meeting had taken place two hours before midnight.
So now at last there is a good chance that I will be able to learn more about the Jackal's thieves and perhaps something about the man claiming to be a god. I am zealous about tonight's hunting and look forward to telling you more in my next letter to you.
Please give my love to all of your family, and especially to your eldest brother, Quentin.
The sixteenth day of May in the 943rd year a.g.l.
For reasons I will eventually make clear, there is no longer any reason for me to maintain the fiction of the above letter, so I will tell in a straightforward manner what happened when I went to the alley last night.
Two men arrived there; I could catch no more than an impression of their faces in the darkness, but I thought I would be able to recognize them again if ever I met them in daylight. I pressed myself back into the shadows, unwilling to come too close, so I couldn't hear clearly what they were saying, but I caught the words "Jackal" and "thieves." Then one of them said, in a voice just loud enough to reach me, "Come, if we bring the Jackal our report now, he'll be able to tell us what to do next." The other man nodded and murmured something; then the two men left the alley.
They were easier to track than I had thought they would be; it appeared that the Jackal's thieves received no better training in slipping through dark streets than the Chara's spies. The moon was below the horizon, so I followed them from sound, in the same way that I used to hunt breachers on moonless nights. Once I thought I had lost them; then I heard them again, just reaching the end of a black alley. Quickly I stepped into the alley behind them.
It was the sound of a breath that alerted me to what was about to happen, and my hand sped toward my dagger, but it was too late. In the next moment I found myself thrust front-forward against the alley wall, with my empty dagger hand pinned painfully against the small of my back.
My dagger slid out of its sheath; then I felt my back-sling taken from where I had draped it, on my left shoulder. This was not being done by my captor, but by a second man, who then felt my boots for weapons before reaching under my tunic to unlace my thigh-pocket. I was motionless and silent through all this; I could feel the edge of a blade biting against the back of my neck.
"Take him inside," the second man said. His voice was low, but memory began groggily stirring within me. My thoughts were cut short by a light blinding my eyes: it came from the house whose wall I was trapped against, for the second man had pulled open a door in the alley. I felt myself jerked back from the wall, then propelled through the door. As the door closed behind me, I was released, and I stood still for a moment, blinking in the bright torchlight as I took in my surroundings.
I was in a storehouse of some sort; I could see bags of grain around me and small doors leading into further rooms. Surrounding me were half a dozen armed men, four of whom I recognized. Just coming through one of the small doors were the two men I had been following; they must have arrived by way of another outer door. A third man was standing so close to me that I knew he must have been my captor: this was Morgan the fruit merchant, his smile just as broad as before. Holding my belongings was a fourth man, the one whose face I half-recognized yesterday. He turned without a word and handed the dagger and back-sling and thigh-pocket to Morgan, who took them so compliantly that I knew that this last man must be the leader of the group.
I felt my throat close in and my heart pound, but I found the strength to say, "You have no right to take me, Griffith. I let your brother live; I am no longer part of the feud."
The Baron of Cold Run looked upon me with cool and steady eyes. Since I had last seen him, he had acquired a deep gash along his right arm, and I wondered whether one of my kin had attempted to make him a victim. He was dressed in a dark tunic that gave no indication of his rank, but though he appeared to be the youngest man there, everyone else was watching him expectantly.
He said, "That is why you are the prey: because you are no longer part of the feud. We have captured you upon the instructions of the one to whom you broke your blood vow."
To my knowledge, no man there was my kin by birth, yet standing in the bright light, I felt myself bound once more by the dark terror that has followed me since I left Mountside. Griffith stood waiting, his hand hanging beside the free-man's blade at his belt. With a dry mouth, I said, "My father?"
"No," said Griffith. "The Jackal."
The seventeenth day of May in the 943rd year a.g.l.
I am being held in the storehouse where I was captured, in a room empty but for a pallet and basins, and with only narrow slits near the ceiling for windows. These let in enough light for me to see by, as well as the smells and sounds of the outside world. I hear people passing by periodically and could shout for help, but what would be the use? The Jackal's thieves would merely tell the Koretians that I am a spy, and I would be handed over to Blackwood's soldiers, to meet a fate as terrible as the one I am now facing.
I have been left unbound, and food and drink is brought to me regularly. My back-sling, after being examined, was returned to me. Gone was the blade I'd hidden in the back-sling's secret pocket, but my letter and blank paper and writing materials were still there. That is why I am able to write these entries. I know, of course, that what I write will be read by the thieves, but as long as I do not write anything that would betray Emor, it doesn't matter what I say here. The thieves already know most of my story anyway.
They know that I am a spy and that I was in the border mountain patrol before that; I suppose that one of the Koretians we sent back to this land spread word that a Koretian-born soldier of my name was in the patrol. They also know about Mountside's blood feud with Cold Run and my broken vow; Griffith would have told them that. But they also know of things no one else knows, secrets I only told Fenton. These, they cheerfully inform me, they learned from the Jackal.
I suppose they tell me this in order to frighten me. They needn't have bothered; I am scared enough as it is. I have known, of course, that I would one day face the Jackal and be forced to pay the penalty for breaking my vow. I have even rehearsed in my mind on several occasions the speech of defense I would give; I patterned it after the law defenses Carle taught me. But I thought that I would be giving this speech when I reached the Land Beyond. Now I will have to give it in just a short time.
In the meantime, I am being treated well. Every few hours, a thief visits my cell – to keep me from getting bored, each of them says, though I suppose the real reason is to try to trap me into revealing something about my work. So far they have asked me no direct questions about my life in Emor. Instead, they have questioned me about the people I knew in Mountside and Cold Run: Fenton and Hamar and Emlyn and Griffith and Siward and my father and many others. I have answered all their questions; I am not sure what they would do to me if I remained silent, and I would prefer to save my defiance for the issues that really matter.
They have also talked freely about themselves – not about their work for the Jackal, naturally, but about their ordinary jobs that they use to disguise their thieves' work. Since they seem willing to answer any questions I ask, I have been trying to discern some pattern to what sort of men the Jackal recruits. Not that I will be able to take this information back to Emor, but I would like to satisfy my own curiosity.
I've had no luck in discovering such a pattern. The Jackal's thieves come from all the ranks except, of course, that of the slaves – they say that they have been trying to find recruits among the Reborn, but those men, above all others, are unwilling to become involved in unlawful activities and risk being punished. The thieves come from the borderland and from central and southern Koretia, and they hold the usual mixture of trades and professions. The only feature they hold in common, if their words are to be believed, is that they all hate the civil war and the blood feud that started it. In fact, they have gone to great lengths to tell me how much they hate blood feuds, as well as demon-stonings and Living Deaths and all the other religious atrocities of this land.
I suppose they are trying to lure me into showing how great my hatred is of the gods. I have not lied to them here either; speaking of this to them saves me the trouble of saying these words to the Jackal. Now that I am forced to meet with the god, I am eager to tell him how much I despise the horrors that he and the other gods have instituted in this land.
The eighteenth day of May in the 943rd year a.g.l.
When Morgan delivered my food this evening, I finally had the opportunity to ask him a question that has been bothering me. He laughed at length before saying, "Knox? May the gods bless his spirit – why would he tell us where to find you? Not that he had a chance to do any talking, once you'd delivered him to the King's men." He raised his eyebrows, and I felt myself flush. Morgan took pity on me then, saying, "No, it wasn't Knox or any other breacher who told us where to find you. It was Piers."
"Piers?" I said slowly. "He's one of you?"
"He wasn't at the time you met him. You remember him, then?" Morgan placed his leg on the bench I was sitting on and slung his arm over his knee. He was taking care, I noticed, to stay out of arm's reach of me, but I was not such a fool as to think that I could fight my way past both him and the thieves in the room outside.
I nodded slowly. "He gave me directions to the underground market here. And he talked about how he enjoyed playing pranks when he was young. . . ." My voice faded away.
Morgan nodded. "When Griffith recruited him to our cause not long afterwards – they're distant kin to each other – he told us that, ever since that conversation, he had been thinking about how much more exciting his life was when he was young, and how he wished he could be as afire with ideals as he had been before the duties of manhood weighed him down. Well, Piers has the right blend of fire and restraint we look for in thieves. And he did us a favor by telling us about his conversation with you."
"I didn't give him my lineage, though," I protested.
"You hinted you were kin to the old nobility; he mentioned that to Griffith. And when Griffith asked for your description, your appearance matched. Piers told us you'd been with another man – 'with skin so white you'd think he was Emorian,' was the way he put it. So Griffith checked with our border guards— Oh, yes, we have men there too," he said, seeing my expression change. "This was only a fortnight after you had spoken with Piers, and the guards still remembered a certain dark-skinned mountain patrol guard who had breached the border as a prank with a light-skinned mountain patrol guard. . . ." Morgan's smile broadened. "The rest was easy. Or at least, it was easy for the Jackal, once he had the clue he needed as to where you had gone after you fled from Cold Run. Ever since he learned that you became a spy after you were released from the patrol, he has been waiting for you to return. He thought you would be back, in the end. He's very patient in such matters." He glanced down at my untouched plate. "Aren't you going to eat that?"
I shook my head, and with a shrug he removed the plate. I sat for a long while, cold with sickness, thinking of the Jackal patiently waiting for his prey to return, so that he could pounce on me. . . .
I don't feel I can write any more tonight.
The nineteenth day of May in the 943rd year a.g.l.
Morgan came by again this morning and read what I had written so far in this portion of my journal. Keeping up the pretense that I am an honored guest rather than a prisoner, he asked my permission first. He laughed as he was reading but would not say why. I am trying not to be too bitter about this. I can remember many times when I and the other patrol guards laughed and joked while bringing a prisoner to the hut. I suppose that, in every blade-wielding profession, one becomes callous to other people's misfortunes.
I haven't seen Griffith again since my capture. When I asked about this, Morgan told me that he had gone to fetch the Jackal from one of the villages. This implies that the Jackal's powers are limited, as I and another Emorian I know had guessed; otherwise, the Jackal would have known about my capture without being told.
Since I have little else to do between the thieves' visits, I have found myself wondering what the Jackal is like in his human form. What is it like to live as a god-man, having the power to destroy or preserve all men around you? I cannot imagine that the god-man has any more understanding of human suffering than the god did before he came to the Land of the Living, since he himself can't have undergone any suffering. Perhaps he doesn't even fully understand that he puts his people through agonies when he demands their blood sacrifice – but there my sympathy extends too far, for he is a god, all-knowing, though not all-compassionate.
All this has led me to wonder why the Jackal bothered to take on a human body. Why live among men when he himself cannot truly be a man? Is it his way of pretending that he is one of us? If so, he is like a king who puts on the clothes of a slave and parades through the city, then returns at day's end to his fine sheets and velvet cushions.
So curious have I become about this question that I couldn't even wait for the Jackal's arrival, but instead asked Morgan. He said that I would understand when I met the Jackal – that some things cannot be explained but only experienced. This is the first thing any of the thieves have told me that I am sure is true. I can only hope that my curiosity will overcome my fear when the moment comes. I do not want to meet my death in a manner that would be shameful for one of the Chara's soldiers.
The twentieth day of May in the 943rd year a.g.l.
He arrived this morning. He is not what I expected.
The sound of Griffith's voice was what first alerted me to his coming. I pressed my ear against the door and did my best to make good use of my patrol-guard training. I could hear a tumble of voices and much laughter; from the snatches of phrases I could identify, it appeared that the thieves were giving their reports on what I had said during my imprisonment. Then the voices died down, and I could hear someone new speaking. He had a light, lilting voice, not what I would have imagined in a god, but whatever he said kept his thieves quiet. There was no more laughter, and from this I concluded that he must be telling them what he planned to do with me, and that the thieves were not as callous as I'd thought. Or perhaps the fate he planned for me was so dreadful that even they could not laugh.
I have tried hard while writing these entries to avoid recording my various fears about what form my death would take, for I knew that the thieves would read this journal, and I didn't want to give the Jackal any ideas. But those fears were very much in my mind as I heard the voice stop and footsteps come toward my door.
At moments like this, when waiting for a door to open and dark doom to enter, I found that one becomes occupied with trivialities. In this case, I could not figure out what to do with my hands and arms. Should I fold my arms over my chest as a sign of defiance? Should I place my hands behind my back, as though I were a prisoner brought before his judge? Should I lean casually against the wall, as though I was fearless?
I was still worrying about all this when the door opened and the Jackal entered.
His eyes were gold. That was the first thing I noticed. His eyes were bright gold and slanted; his whiskers were thin and sleek; his teeth were razor-sharp and curled into a grin. All this was just a mask, of course; I had known that it would be. But it is surprising how effective a painted god-mask can be when it is worn. I felt as though I were truly looking at the god's face.
Something more entered the room with him, and this I cannot describe. I suppose that all this time, the skeptical, Emorian side of me was waiting to disprove that the man called the Jackal was a god. It was my only way to escape, after all; I could not escape death, but I would escape judgment if this was only an imposter. But what I felt when the man entered the room was what I had felt on the day of my coming of age. That could not be counterfeited; I had known the presence of the god's power then, and I knew it now.
This alone kept me speechless to await the god's words. When they came, they matched the smile on his mask. "Well, Adrian," he said, "how do you like being the prey once more?"
This mockery stung me. I heard myself reply, "I would rather be the Jackal."
"Oh, I doubt that," he said. He was standing with his body swayed to one side, like a wild dog relaxed in its posture after a hard day's hunting. "You wouldn't want to be the Jackal all of the time. Even as a patrol guard, you have not had to take on the duty of sitting in judgment over men."
I swallowed, then launched into the first stage of my defense. "You have no right to judge me. I'm an Emorian now."
"Then you ought to have stayed in Emor. I could have reached you in Emor, but I left you alone as long as you stayed there. Now you are in my land; now you are under my care once more. And so you must answer for the promise you made to me."
The slanted eyes on his mask were punctured by eye-holes, but oddly enough, the human eyes behind the god's eyes appeared gold as well. I stared at them, trying to grasp at some thought that would not come. Then I realized that the Jackal was still waiting for my reply, so I said, "I made my vow to you when I thought that you and the other gods were good and just, but you're not – you're evil, and you have brought evil to this land. You command men to kill each other, just to satisfy your own blood-thirst, and when one man refuses to murder, you, the God of Mercy, condemn him for it. You said a moment ago that I am under your care; why should I believe that you care about me or any other human?"
There was a pause, and then there was a soft, rippling sound, like that of a wind stroking the leaves of a tree. The god was laughing.
Feeling my face grow warm, I shouted, "Stop that! It's not funny!"
"Only because you do not see the joke," the Jackal replied. "When the gods look down upon human suffering and laugh, it is not because they are heartless to what men feel, but because they see widely enough to know the irony of all that happens. Laughter is only the other side of crying; I have done enough of both to know this."
I willed away my own impulse to tears and countered, "I don't believe you. I don't believe that you've ever cried."
"What were Fenton's first words to you when he returned from the priests' house?" the Jackal asked softly.
I was silent, remembering the day during my twelfth year when Fenton had appeared at my home after his years spent living in the south. He had taken me up the mountain and told me the story of how the Jackal had fought to protect the Koretians against their enemies and had suffered grievous wounds, and then had wept for thirty days, not from his pain, but for the pain of his people. His tears, Fenton said, had turned into the black border mountains.
"In any case, it is not for your broken blood vow that you must answer to me," said the Jackal. "It is for this."
His left hand, which had been curved until this moment like a mighty claw, thrust forward suddenly with a rapidity that startled me as he tossed something at me that was round and black. I caught it automatically, then stared down at the twisted, blackened object in my hand.
"It is not the same one, of course," said the Jackal. "The one you threw lies buried in the ashes of your birthday fire. But I thought it would remind you of what I gave you and of what you promised in exchange."
I felt my stomach lurch in a sickly manner as I continued to stare at the blackroot nut before me. "I never told anyone about that, not even Fenton," I whispered.
"You told me," the Jackal replied succinctly.
My hand curled into a fist so that the jagged edges of the fire-burnt nut cut into my palm. "I asked you to give me the strength to do something that would please Fenton," I said firmly. "Killing his murderer wouldn't have pleased him; Fenton would have hated that. He would have wanted me to break my blood vow to murder."
"I know," said the Jackal. "That is why I gave you the strength to do so."
One of the slit windows above was casting down a shaft of light that illuminated the swirling golden dust before landing on the hair of the Jackal, which was black and tawny gold, like the fur of a beast. A second thought I could not place stirred within me, but I set it aside for the moment, saying, "You can't make me believe that you wanted me to break the vow."
"Why should I lie to you?" The smile on the Jackal's mask remained. "You are under my power; I can do with you as I wish."
"You can't make me worship you," I said. "That's what you're trying to do: you're trying to make me believe that the gods are good and that I should return my allegiance to you. It won't work. Whatever you do to me—" My breath failed me for a moment, and I had to swallow hard to chase away the tears before I said, "You can say what you like, but you can't change this fact: Fenton was sacrificed to satisfy your bloodlust. He was my friend, and I will never forgive you for that."
There was a pause, and through the window slit I could hear the sound of men and women passing and talking. I thought to myself, This is the last sound I will ever hear. The Jackal bore no weapon on his belt, but somehow I knew that he did not need one.
Finally, the Jackal asked softly, "What are the last words that Fenton spoke to you?"
"Not all that men will in the gods' names is the will of the gods." The memory of Fenton's blasphemy whispered in my memory. I could think of nothing to reply. The Jackal took several steps forward, and I tensed. Halting a short way from me, he said, still softly, "I did not will Fenton's death. I would have prevented it if possible. Both as a god and as a man, I loved him."
I felt my breathing grow heavier, and I wished that he would kill me now, before the tears became too painful to contain. "How can I believe that?" I said with fury. "Fenton told Siward that it was your will that he die. Do you expect me to believe your word over his? I don't believe that you care about Fenton or anyone else."
I waited to see whether he would laugh again, but he simply stood motionless for a moment. Then his hand reached up, and he pulled the mask from his face.
"Then accept this as your proof," he said. "It is the only one I have to give."
I stared dumbly at the brown face before me, set with a plain snub nose and a dented chin and the same golden eyes I had noticed before and which were now pressing frantically at my thoughts. Then his lips curled up like a leaf weighted with dawn dew, and I saw the human smile I had heard in his voice.
"You don't remember me, I see," he said. "Well, it has been many years. I am your cousin Emlyn, and Fenton was my blood brother."
The twenty-first day of May in the 943rd year a.g.l. (continued from yesterday)
I continued to stare at the face of the man before me: the snub nose he and I shared, the dented chin he had acquired from a misbegotten childhood prank played with his blood brother Griffith, and the golden-brown eyes I remembered now so clearly from our days spent together on the mountain.
I found my tongue finally and said, "You were always the best Jackal."
"And you were the best prey. I had Griffith trace where you had gone after you left the border mountain patrol, but it has taken me this long to trace your movements in Koretia as a spy. I think that my thieves were beginning to have some doubts about my abilities as a god-man."
The lines about the edges of his eyes, which had not been there when I had last seen him, were crinkled with humor. Slowly, I was beginning to retrace my final conversation with Fenton and to recognize the hints he had given me. I took a deep breath and said, "I never knew. I never guessed when I was a child."
"Nor did I. I thought for many years that my visions meant I had a demon within me and that I would be killed by stoning – another of those religious barbarities you assumed I approved of." He placed the back of his hand against his forehead and swept his hair back, a move so achingly familiar that I could almost forget the mask that was in that hand. "It was Fenton who helped me to discover what was within me and to join myself fully with the god. He stayed with me even after I foretold that he would be murdered because of me."
I felt myself staring once more at the flames of Fenton's sacrificial fire, holding his letter to Emlyn in my hand, the one that spoke of Fenton's coming departure. "But he said that he was going to meet with you again," I said. "He must have known that he was going to die – he must have known from the moment our blood feud started with Cold Run. Why did he think that you two would be reunited?"
Emlyn's smile had slowly slid away, but his voice continued to hold its innate lightness as he said, "He told you that himself, with his final words of life. 'The Jackal must eat his dead.'"
I felt myself growing hot, as though the gold in Emlyn's eyes was the flame I had stood before in my memories. "No," I said. "No, how could you do that? How could you . . . take him like that if you loved him?"
Emlyn sighed as he let the mask pivot beneath the gentle hold of his fingers. "It is hard to explain – hard to explain even to myself at times like this, when my godly powers are hidden deep below, and I am little more than a man. My powers are limited at most times, but even the god with whom I am united has limited himself in his dealings with men. The gods will not take away men's freedom of will; therefore they cannot take away men's freedom to will evil. The best I can do is to take what men will, make it my own will, and use the evil event to do good. Fenton offered up his sacrifice to me; therefore I was able to use his death to bring about good."
"What good?" I whispered. "What good could be worth his life?"
"His death sent you to Emor."
I was still a moment. Then I shouted, "No! Don't say he died because of me! I'd rather have been on that pyre myself, dying conscious of the pain, than be alive in Emor because he died."
"Adrian, he would have died in any case. Would you have his death be useless to ease your conscience?"
For the first time, his voice turned stern. Feeling as though Quentin had brought me forward for disciplining, I stared at the floor and mumbled, "What does it matter whether I live in Emor? It makes me happy, but it's of no importance to anyone else."
After a while, I looked up. Emlyn was smiling again, a smile that looked oddly old for such a young face. "I know so little about you, Adrian," he said. "Some things I learned from Fenton, some from Griffith, and some things – a very few things – have been shown to me by my powers. Many years ago, I saw that you would one day be in danger. Later I saw you sitting in a snowbound cave, talking to an Emorian, so I knew that you would one day go to Emor. I sent Fenton back north to prepare you for that. He could not tell you who I was – I bound him from letting anyone know my dangerous secret until the time came for me to wear my mask – but I know that you and he were friends, as he and I were. I am no longer your god, but we share a blood brother and so are doubly kin. Will you therefore trust me enough to tell me what you have been doing in Emor?"
I shook my head. "I cannot betray the Chara. I have given my oath to him."
"You need not break it. I would just like to know what caused you to flee to Emor and why you have decided to stay there."
I hesitated, but what he asked was not unreasonable, so I told him what he wanted to know, even about Carle, though I did not give his name or hint that he had become a spy as well. By the time I was through, Emlyn and I were seated together on the room's floor-pallet, as though we were no more than cousins catching up on each other's lives. In a way, I suppose we were.
When I had finished speaking, Emlyn was silent a minute, fingering the strap of his mask. Then he said softly, "Carle."
My breath hit the back of my throat. Emlyn must have heard me, for he looked up and said in a matter-of-fact manner, "Fenton told me about Carle when I was a boy. It was easy enough to guess, from the way you described him: a young man who joined the patrol against his father's wishes, who had ties with an older patrol guard before entering the army, who knows Border Koretian and is familiar with Koretian customs. . . . I'd wondered why it had to be Fenton who prepared you for Emor. Now I know."
I felt an uneasiness growing inside me. Emlyn had been bright-witted as a child; his guess about Carle was evidence of his continued intelligence. How much of our conversation was the result of his cleverness rather than of godly powers? Most of it? All of it? I tried to remember back. The nut he had shown me . . . I had been the one to tell him the promise attached to it. He had said nothing more than that I had tossed a nut into the fire on my birthday. Fenton might have told him that much. Perhaps there was even a simple explanation as to why Emlyn knew Fenton's final words to me. And the presence that I had felt when Emlyn entered the room – might not that be a product of my own certainty that I would be facing a god? Or, at best, a sign that Emlyn had received the priestly training that all orphan boys do in the priests' house? Was the Jackal in fact no more than what Carle thought, a keen-minded fraud?
I realized that several moments had passed since Emlyn had spoken. Trying to avoid Emlyn's light-filled eyes, I ducked my head and pulled the back-sling closer to me, saying, "Carle thought it was an understandable coincidence that he and I met. He was able to help Fenton past the patrol because he wished to join the patrol, and I was able to impress the patrol because Fenton had taught me the signals that Carle had taught him—"
"Yes," said Emlyn, "that is one explanation."
I looked up quickly to see that Emlyn was smiling at me; his eyes were bright under the noonday light. "Your meeting with Carle could have been a coincidence," he said, "as could Fenton's meeting with me. For that matter, our meeting today might be due to nothing more than the alertness of the Jackal's thieves, while the Jackal himself might be no more than a man who learnt a great deal in childhood about tricking people. All that could be true."
A passing cloud cast a shadow into the room. It fell upon Emlyn, shading his smile. Only his eyes, by some trick of the light, continued to glow. There was a pause of sound, for nobody outside the storehouse was passing at that moment, while the thieves in the next chamber, whom I had heard faintly while telling my story, had chosen this moment to fall silent. Under the shadow, Emlyn's smile did not waver.
I knew then what I had only suspected before, that in certain ways I will always be Koretian. If Carle had been sitting in that room, he would have witnessed no more than a change in shadows, a quiet spell – nothing unexpected or out of the ordinary. As for myself, my heart was beating as rapidly as it had in the moment that I was faced with the choice of fighting Quentin or throwing away my blade. I heard myself say, as I had said many months before, "The Jackal is the trickster god."
There was a sigh in the world, and the cloud continued on, withdrawing its shadow from Emlyn's face. He said, as though nothing of importance had occurred, "I've never known whether it was the god who decided that Fenton and I would become friends, or whether it was a decision the three of us made together, but having him as my tutor as a child made all the difference to me. Because he was Emorian-born, he was able to recognize evils in the Koretian religion that no other priest could, evils that the Jackal has come to this land to fight."
My breath flew inwards. "Is that what you're planning to do? Fight against the gods' law?"
"Against the corruptions in the gods' law, yes."
It took me a moment to recover from this stupendous announcement. My spirit was still dwelling upon what I had seen before. I was remembering the angry priests who demanded that the Jackal show him their powers, and the borderlanders who had been invited to be his thieves and had failed the test. Had the Jackal indeed refused to show his powers to these men? Or was it instead the case that the Jackal's proof had gone unnoticed by men who had already convinced themselves that he was not a god because he did not fulfill their preconceptions of what the gods must be like? And I, who had been so sure that I knew what the gods were and what they wanted . . . how close had I come to failing the Jackal's test?
I felt a shiver go through me and forced such thoughts away, saying, "But why this way? You're not even fighting the priests. You and your thieves have been playing pranks against the nobility. How will that cause them to change the gods' law? Wouldn't it be better to go directly to the King—?" I stopped; Emlyn's smile had returned. I said slowly, "That wasn't the way the Jackal God fought. He never fought his enemies directly."
"Nor did I, as a child," said Emlyn. "You're not the first person to think I'm mad for fighting a war this way, but Griffith and I have much experience in this. Children can't fight their elders directly; Griffith and I found ways to fight them through pranks, ways that were more effective in the long run. Griffith and I forged the weapons for this war, but it was Fenton who taught me the reason for this war. I believe that the god brought him to this land for that purpose."
I thought about this awhile, as the shadows shifted to afternoon. Emlyn was seated cross-legged beside me, still fiddling with his mask as though it were simply a toy to be played with. He looked at the moment like nothing more than a young borderlander of four and twenty years. Once again the incongruity of our conversation and of what Emlyn was supposed to hold inside him tugged at me. Carle had dismissed that incongruity as evidence of the Jackal's falsehood, but I wondered now whether the incongruity was instead a clue to the Jackal's nature.
I said finally, "Fenton came to Koretia with Carle's help in order to teach you what needed to be changed in Koretia. And I . . ." I hesitated, feeling a flush surge over my neck and ears.
Emlyn nodded. "Yes, that's what I think as well: that you were sent back to Emor in order to teach the Emorians what needs to be changed in their land. Perhaps through Carle, since he seems to be the key in all this."
"But I don't believe that anything should be changed in Emor," I said. "It's exactly the opposite. If you really want to help Koretia – if the god wants to help Koretia – then you should allow the Emorians to take control of the Koretian government. As a dominion, Koretia would still have the independence to keep its culture, but the gods' law would be replaced by the law – by the Chara's law, which would end the blood feuds and everything else that is evil in this land."
The words poured out of me. I had not realized, till I spoke them, how great my desire was to see this happen. I expected Emlyn to be angered by this suggestion, but he simply wrapped the band of his mask around his finger and said, "If you have children, will you teach them that the gods are worthy of honor?"
I was startled by this sudden change of topic. "I wasn't— I mean, I hadn't intended to, but . . ." I was silent a while, absorbing into my memories the truth of what the gods had actually willed during all those months when I thought they had executed Fenton. Then I said quietly, "I'll have to think about it more, but . . . Yes, I think so. I won't teach my children that the gods' law is worthy of honor, but I'll teach them that the gods who hate the evils of this land are worthy of honor."
"And your grandchildren? Do you believe that your children will teach them to honor the gods?"
Startled into an understanding of what he meant, I made no reply. Emlyn put the mask to one side as he said, "Adrian, don't think that I'm unappreciative of the virtues of Emor. In your own way, I believe that you and the other Emorians serve the gods. But that is your way, and Koretia has its own way. If the gods' law were destroyed, in a generation or two the Koretians would have forgotten to worship the seven gods and goddesses of Koretia. This I am sure of."
"But you can't let the gods' law continue!" I cried. "The blood feuds—"
"The gods' law existed before the blood feuds did. The corruption in the Koretian law can be removed without destroying our law—"
"The corruption will return," I said firmly. "It must return, because there are no alternatives for the Koretians but to avenge crimes through feuds. They need the Chara's law to provide that alternative—"
Emlyn rose to his feet, sighing. "Adrian, I didn't bring you here to fight about whether your religion is better than my religion. . . . No, listen." He held his hand up. "You've evidently given this a great deal of thought, much more than I have; perhaps this is part of the gods' plan for you. But you're speaking to the wrong person. You have your role to play in Emor, and I have mine here in Koretia – we each have our own duties. If Emor is to take part in this war in any way, it will have to be through you. The god has not placed that duty upon me."
I played with the leather of my back-sling strap, realizing, for the first time, that I would walk out of this room alive. Finally I lifted my head and forced myself to say, "Emlyn . . . if you let me go, I will have to tell my official about our meeting."
"I want you to do so. That is one of the reasons I have been hunting you so hard for the past months." Emlyn reached forward with his hand and helped me to rise from the pallet, saying, "Adrian, you've seen for yourself that I have no interest in meddling in Emorian affairs. If Emor takes part in this war that the Jackal is waging, it will do so in the gods' time, but I will not bring Emor into the war myself by troubling its people. Yet I know that the Chara doubts this; he fears that my activities will spill over the border. I want you to tell the Chara what you've heard me say: that my battles are against the new nobility and the other Koretians who will not accept reforms of the gods' law. I have no quarrel with the Chara or his land."
I said, my voice tight, "For my report to be complete, I would have to tell my official who you are."
Emlyn was standing in shadow. I could see no more than that he was not smiling. "That is a choice you will have to make for yourself," he said quietly. "All I can tell you is that, if I am unmasked, my life will not be long. I can use my powers to protect myself against individual men, but not against a unit of soldiers sent to arrest me."
My throat ached with tears withheld; I stooped to scoop up my back-sling. When I looked back at Emlyn, he was smiling. "Follow your duty," he advised. "If your duty truly takes you that way, I won't think the less of you for revealing my identity."
I said in a voice still strained, "You said that was one reason you hunted me. Is there another?"
Emlyn nodded. "Yes. To warn you to stay away from your village."
I slipped the back-sling onto my shoulder, feeling a dull ache grow inside me. This time I did not bother to hide the wound. "My father is still angry?"
"He has taken a blood vow to give you over to the new priest for judgment, should you return to the village. The new priest believes in the gods' law as it stands, and all of your family is bound to aid your father in his vow. You will find no assistance there."
"If you . . ." I hesitated, but Emlyn was already shaking his head.
"I tried to speak to your father, both masked and unmasked." He gave one of his bright smiles. "I was lucky to escape alive on both occasions. No, cousin; the only help I can give you is to offer you this warning."
I swallowed the pain in my throat and said, "I appreciate it. And for telling me the rest, especially the part about Fenton. If there's anything I can do for you – anything that wouldn't go against my duty—"
Emlyn reached the door before I did and rested his hand on the latch. I could hear Griffith and Morgan chatting outside in a relaxed manner while the Jackal interviewed his kinsman. "The debt is mine," he said. "Only a spy could have carried my message to the Chara. Is there anything that I can do for you? Any wish that needs fulfillment?"
"Thank you, but no," I replied politely. "I'm really quite—" And then I stopped, and I felt my heart drive blood to my farthest extremities.
Emlyn was still standing next to the door, his hand on the latch. His tunic was that of a lesser free-man and was sober in color for that of a jeweller; his bladeless belt was frayed. And his face was that of the Jackal.
He had not put on his mask; the mask had shaped his face, turning his amber eyes to gold, and his smiling mouth to a snarl. The whiskers shimmered like cutting wire, and the teeth glowed silver under the shadows. The fire in his eyes was of the type that eats men.
I did not realize that I had retreated until I felt the wall against my back. Sweat ran into my eyes, blurring my vision. The voice I had heard at the beginning of our conversation, the voice so much like Emlyn and yet so unlike him, whispered in thunder, "Tell me what you wish, son of Berenger."
"I—" My throat was so dry I had to start again, while my mind groped like a sick man for the nearest thought at hand. "I'd like to make a sacrifice for Carle. I've always wanted to do that. And— If it's possible, I'd like to make a sacrifice for the Chara."
The Jackal walked forward. I could feel the heat of his fire like the breath of a wild beast. His hand, glowing like embers, reached up toward my forehead, in the gesture of a priest pronouncing a curse upon those who break the gods' law. It hovered above my skin as my gaze rose to it. Then the rumbling whisper said, "Be at peace, servant of the Lawmaker."
The hand fell, and with it something fell from me – I could not say what. When I looked again at the Jackal, he held my cousin's face.
"Do you have time to dine with us before you leave?" he asked. And his smile was the smile of the Jackal, yet it was the smile also of the boy I had known as a child.
He opened the door, and waiting there was Griffith, holding in his hand the jewelled dagger I had given Siward: the High Priest's dagger, Fenton had told me, made by a craftsman in the south. Emlyn showed it to me with a smile before placing it sheathed upon his belt. I found myself being swept forward by the other thieves toward the meal awaiting us.
That is all I can remember of my meeting with the Jackal. It will be enough for me to think upon for years.