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Chapter 1: Salt

 

 

 

I sometime wonder about Tre’Kato.

I met him but twice in my life, and neither time was under the best circumstances. I still know very little of him. I would later learn that he was the last offspring of a long tradition of historians in the Liantharinan’s court. Was it his familiarity with history that made him recognise the errors that had crept unseen into the White Prophet Doctrine? Or was the opening of Clerres to the Away Kingdoms that I had fostered that gave him an inkling on different ways of life? And who was Depth, the Skill-User from the Six Duchies that he had with him? Was is as simple as a Skill-User occurring in Clerres, or did it mean that Tre’Kato had had contact with the land of my birth?

I shall never know.

Most puzzling still is my own reaction to him. I am not, by any means, a trusting man. Many who have known and loved me beyond what I deserve have pointed out my own reserves to me, my inability to trust and let even my loved ones close. Yet I trusted Tre’Kato’s word almost from the moment I saw him. Looking back at my actions I marvel at how I ate that drugged meal, knowing it would make my Dhil’a, my Wit-companion and I sleep for a day and a night. With us drugged, what would have stopped him from killing us all? Yet I knew he would not harm us, in any way.

I have no explanation, save one: when I looked at him, I saw myself. Not how I am now, but how I could have been. I knew him, as I knew my own self, or a self that could have been mine, had the Wheel turned in another cycle, had my Keppet been a different person. I could have been Tre’Kato.

Does that mean Tre’Kato could have been me? That he was another my Dhil’a could have bonded with? That he was a Catalyst in the ancient meaning of the word? Or was he me, and I Kebal Rawbread?

For much of my life, I have been my Dhil’a’s tool. With his help and aid I put a Farseer back on the throne of the Six Duchies. For my love of him I freed Icefyre.  I did not know all that would happen. My Keppet told me it would be a better World, with dragons glittering in the sky.

But many Iduyans would not think so. Those whose parents, children and spouses died in the Sakhadzibe under Icefyre’s own breath and talons would not. And between a child dead under a dragon’s acid breath and a child killed by a Forged parent, who indeed is more dead?

I can’t help but think of what the Pale Woman promised Kebal Rawbread. That a World in which the Six Duchies fell was the best one. That it was the only way for a better future. She was evil, indeed, evil beyond words. She murdered and tortured. She destroyed wherever she went.

But does this make her wrong? For a Six Duchies’ man, she was. For an Iduyan, she was not.

I can’t help but feeling that, when we went into the Pale Woman’s Ice place, my friend saw his mirror. And when we went into the Aquamarine Castle, a lifetime and half a World away, I saw my own.

 

The first thing I noticed was the heat. The second was my thirst.

I opened my eyes, the inside of my mouth sticky and my throat parched. The light was painful. I made a sound and closed them again. I waited for the pain to subside and my sight to adjust, and then opened them carefully.

An unreal silence greeted me.  I felt weak. I moved my arms and legs feebly. The rustle of fabric seemed unnaturally loud. I blinked and turned my head. My friend was curled up in the bed beside me, his drug induced sleep still deep. His fine dark hair veiled what of his face was not hidden by his arms.

I struggled to sit up. The covers had tangled around me, and my weak attempts to dislodge them were as useless as they were pathetic. I managed to push myself up and looked around. Motes of dust danced in the light. By the height of the sun, I surmised it was midday, or perhaps a little after. Snowcloud slept silently on the floor, away from the sun, her flanks moving with the steady motion of her breath.

I strained my ears, but nothing could be heard. There was no sound beyond the endless churning of the waves. The heat made even the gulls and seabirds still. The Rainy Season had passed, and the Dry Season was upon us once more. I shook my head to clear it. No voices. No sounds of footsteps or the neighing of horses or baying of dogs.

We were alone in the castle.

I managed to untangle the covers from my legs and stood up. The world wavered in front of my eyes, like the horizon does on a ship. I waited, quenching my nausea, for the movement to subside. Then I took two cautious steps. Water, I reminded myself. Water, then food. I could recall where the kitchens were. Slowly, I walked through the deserted corridors. My head ached, but it did not hurt. Often I stopped to rest and wait for the World to stand still once more, but my thirst drove me onward. I met no-one.

I don’t know how I managed to get to the kitchens, or how long did it took. After a while I stumbled inside. The place was as empty as the rest of the castle, but nothing showed signs of haste. Every pot and pan was in order. The hearth had been swept, and the bamboo contrivance to cook rice was clean. I looked around, searching for water. The barrel was against the cool stone-wall. I wrestled the ladle from the hook and drank deeply. The water was lukewarm, but it quenched my thirst. I threw some over my head. It helped to clear my thoughts. I looked down at my own reflection in the disturbed water. My hair was still a reddish colour, and the black pupils ate away most of the gold. My expression was bewildered. It would be another day before the drug would leave my system.

I went to search for something to eat.

In the end I found very little. Some Iduyans dried meat and hard tack,the kind sailors eat, had been left in a casket. Everything else seemed to have been taken away. I tore into the meat, feeling like a wolf satisfying his hunger. I wolfed it down with mouthful of fresh water. Every bite seemed to clear my head a little.

When I was sated I filled a jug with water and prepared a bundle of as much food as I found. It was quite a lot, but I knew it would have to sustain us until we reached a White Inn. My left hand was almost as deft as usual, even if it felt somewhat strange and small. Satisfied I took the bundle with my right hand and reached for the jug with the left. I tried to lift it, but the weakness of my grip surprised me. The jug slipped from my feeble grasp and fell, shattering with a sound so loud my heart jumped in my chest. I looked at the fragments and the water scattered over the once pristine kitchen as I curled and uncurled my left hand. Then I filled another jug, placed it with the bundle on a tray, and made my way back to the room where my Dhil’a and wolf-dog slept.

I quested for Snowcloud. She was drowsily still, almost asleep. The Fool was always hard to read in my Wit, but my guess was that he, too, was waking. I walked faster, mindful of the jug full of water. I had left the door ajar. I went in.

The Fool was sitting up, his eyes clouded with confusion and alarm, but his expression relaxed in seeing me. He made a noise at the water and gratefully drank deeply, as I had done. I handed him the food without a word, and waited.

In the end he dried his mouth with his sleeve and looked at me.

“We are alive.”

I shrugged.

“So it seems.”

He folded his hands in his lap and stared at them. He didn’t ask if we were alone. It was too obvious to ask. I eyed Snowcloud. She had lifted her head and was shaking it, blinking. I rose to pour some water in the now empty bowl close to her. She lapped it up greedily.

“They have left Clerres.”

My friend’s voice was quiet, soft. He sounded bewildered. I turned toward him, surprised. He was looking out of the window, still sitting on the bed, but he didn’t look like he noticed what went outside.

For a moment, I thought about saying nothing, but the words were drawn from me.

“What else could I do?” I asked him. He turned toward me. His dark eyes were troubled and deep. There was a slight frown on his brow. I sat by him and waited. There were words to be said, as much as I dreaded them. He hesitated then shrugged and opened his palms.

“I… don’t know. I couldn’t see any Future that was not… pain and death.” He swallowed. A muscle in his jaw tightened. He squared his slender shoulders and met my eyes. “But some of those brought their defeat.”

I nodded. I too had seen it, the breathtaking kaleidoscope of futures and possibilities my friend saw.

“Yes.” I agreed, softly. “We may have defeated them. But should we have?”

His eyes widened with shock. His dark skin paled as much as it could and he clenched the covers with his slim hands. A stab of pain reached me from our bond, deep and wounding like a spear thrust.

He turned his head on his shoulders sharply. He didn’t speak, but our unguarded bond showed his feelings as clear as the sun showed the motes of dust in the air. Confusion, and a soulful pain that sounded like clashing notes by an off tune instrument and felt like drowning in the acid spit of fire-ants, burning inside and outside at once. Gasping, with what little strength I had, I tore myself from it and raised my Wit-walls. I looked at him, and blinked.

“You think I agree with them?” I asked, incredulous.

He thinned his lips.

“Don’t you?” He asked, his usually light voice quiet and raw. I winced at hearing it.

“No.” I blurted out. I reached for his hand. “No.” I repeated, softer this time. “But I think they have right to it. To believe what they wish to.” I floundered and swallowed. I pressed his palm with my thumb, squeezing gently. Words had always been hard for me, but not talking would lead to worse results than otherwise.

He pressed back, but did not look at me.

“They burned the White Library.” He spoke as if the words hurt him. As those words had razor edges and cut his throat as they went outside him. Perhaps they had. There was anger here, deep and dark. I did not like him speaking like that.

I nodded. “Yes. And perhaps this way you’ll learn to look truly forward, instead than backward among the words of dead prophets.”

He snatched his hand away like I had burned him. I stood still and closed my eyes, wondering what would happen now. I suddenly felt sick, and tired. I was but recently crippled, and more than half drugged still. The food I had eaten sat in my stomach, hard and uncomfortable. My shoulders drooped. I did not regret what I said, no. It had had to be done. How many time had I opened an abscess in a horse’s hoof or a dog’s muzzle or feet? It was necessary, in spite of the pain it caused, to open the wound ever more. As it had been necessary with my back. I felt a faint twinge of pain as I waited, probably likehow a condemned man waits for his execution.

He said nothing. His breath was fast and laboured. Snowcloud yawned and trotted toward me, nuzzling sleepily at the bundle with the dried meat. I opened my eyes and gave some strips to her. She tore at them hungrily.

“I… We need to go.” I lifted my head. He was busying himself with his pack, taking away a new robe. Dimly, I became aware I was still dressed in my foul-smelling clothes. I tugged at the collar of my shirt and then averted my face from my own stink.Nighteyes would have said that I smelled like last week’s kill.

I rose to my feet and went to my bag. I took up the first clean clothes that came my way. As I did so, I heard the click of the door behind me. I sighed. I didn’t need to turn to know that the Fool had gone to wash himself.

This didn’t go too well, sister.

Snowcloud yawned and stretched every muscle of her body.

Perhaps, brother mine.Or perhaps not. This hunt has not been brought to bay yet. Clean yourself, will you? You are fouling the air.

I glared at her but she simply lolled her tongue at me. I sighed, admitted defeat and went to search for a place to get clean.

 

I avoided the baths in favour of the kitchen barrel. I knew the Fool enough to know he was probably there, if anywhere. I looked at the bandage on my left hand. It was little more than show now, and dirty besides. Slowly, I unwrapped it. The flesh on the side was good and new and paler and softer than the rest of the hand. The hand looked too small and too slender. I remembered the jug of water, and resolved to exercise it to strengthen it. There was not much more that could be done. I washed with the clean water and the soap I had taken from our room. When my hair was clean, I combed it out and then bound it back once more in a warrior’s tail. I shaved in the mirror with a sharp knife I had found in the kitchen, nicking myself twice in the process.

I tried my Skill-links. They seemed as strong as ever. I wondered if they had felt what I had been through in the last… four days. Had it really been so little time? But I could feel neither worry or urgency. I did not know if I should feel disappointed or relived.

I quested toward Vien. As usual, my Solo was ready to answer me.

Vien, bring clothes and everything necessary to Dalat. We shall meet there.

For a brief second I could feel my Huan’s surprise, but Vien was nothing if not well-taught. He suppressed it swiftly.

As you wish, my liege. I can be there in three days.

I counted in my head as I washed my hair. I would need more time to get there, though the ground to cover was less. But Vien would have the well-kept White Roads to travel on. I had no such luck.

Very well. I shall contact you soon. I hesitated. Bring head-dresses. I added, gloomily, remembering my reddish hair.

I could feel his assent as our link faded. If he was curious, he didn’t show it.

Clean, I felt better. I trotted out to the courtyard, followed by Snowcloud. The Fool was there, looking around the stable. Two horses, of the peculiar blend of Road Horse and Iduyan’s Pony I had noticed earlier, stood there. I wondered if they had left them to us, or if there was no space for them on the ship. Or both.

I passed by my friend. He was dressed in his Auburn garb, the dark cream and soft brown good for the hotter Dry Season. Her arms were bare, and so were her legs under the knees. She had light shoes of cloth on. I dared not to glance at her face.

I saddled both horses in silence. They had been left food and water, and were fine, if eager for movement. I put what little we had in the saddle bags as Snowcloud jumped in the water trough. Her splashing was the only sound in the midday silence.

My friend was in the saddle before I could take the second horse out. She was a mare, and a lively one. I eyed her chest and rump. If she had stamina, perhaps she could make a good horse for my stables.

“I am going directly to Behit. I’ll have to sort this.” With my foot in the stirrup, I turned sharply to regard him. My friend was not looking at me. I mounted without a word.

“I understand. The closest White Inn is in Dalat. We could go there and…”

“No Fitz.” He cut me before I could finish. “You go to Dalat. It is the First City of the Vei Province. I’ll go to the next one. It wouldn’t do for King Chinh and the White Prophet to appear in the same White Inn, on the same day.”

I kept looking at him. He avoided my eyes and my face. He was right, of course, but this was not the only reason. I nodded slowly.

“Very well.” I said, quietly. We rode in silence out of the open gates, leaving the silent castle behind us. It would need tending, as would the fields around it. I would have to send a steward here. In that moment, I couldn’t muster the energy to care.

He turned his horse sharply to the side, taking the second road. I stood still, Snowcloud behind me, reigningmy strong little horse with difficulty. She was a sensitive mount, though, and something of my distress must have passed to her, for she quieted under me. I looked on, in silence as my Dhil’a rode on, mindless of me. For a second he stopped his horse, and I wondered if he would turn and salute me. I wondered if I wanted what could be a farewell. For what I had done was grave indeed in the law of Clerres. And I could only dimly realize how it seemed to my Keppet eyes.I had trusted an enemy. I had given information to a foe of what he thought of as his kin. I may have undermined his people’s duty forever. Worse, I had conspired to create something that could unravel the whole tapestry of prophecy, if the burning of the library hadn’t already managed that.

But still I could not regret my deed. Every action has a reaction, and if our own awakening of the dragons had brought people to want to live and die without any influence from the White Prophets, how could I deny them? It was my doing.

All of it.

And he had wished for them to go away. They were going away, of this much I was sure. I briefly debated saying this to him, but I could find no breath in the oppressive silence of the heat.

Before I could decide what to say or if to speak, he gave heels to his horse and the animal, eager for movement, galloped on. I looked at my friend, and wondered what would become of us.