Ten years after Kars Adon died, Hern's advisers came to him and suggested that he should build a capital. Hern, who had slept more of his reign rolled in a rugcoat under a bush than in an actual bed, assumed it was a poor attempt at humour and ignored them.
A while later, while they were camped beside an as yet unnamed waterfall, where the spray dusted everyone's hair in gleaming droplets, they asked again.
"Don't be ridiculous," Hern said, looking around the field with a critical eye. It was a good sized valley, with room for pasture. It could be a good base to resettle some of the refugees who still fought for space around the banks of the Aden after their villages had been destroyed by the One's rising. "What do you think of Dropthwaite for a name?"
They kept asking, presenting him with more arguments every time.
Hern thought a young wistful voice speaking of a city, of an inland kingdom where his people would grow great, and felt a surge of anger that he was being pushed to steal even that. "No," he said. "The Riverlanders don't build cities, Arin. It would be divisive. Let's put a roof over every villager's head first."
A few weeks later, his brother Duck wandered into his tent and remarked, "Your council are calling you names again."
"What are they saying?" Hern asked, looking up from a report on flood damage to crops near Aberath. Duck's hair had grown, into a long mess of tangled curls he had tied back with a red rag. His rugcoat was worn, though Hern had been around weavers long enough to recognise the power of some of the symbols along its hem. His pipes hung from his belt and he had forgotten to shave again. Hern supposed he was lucky none of the guards had tried to stop him at the door this time.
"Things good enough that I'm saving them for a dull day," Duck said with relish. "They made particular reference to your nose."
"Why?" Hern said and then held up his hand quickly as Duck grinned. "The name-calling, not more comments about my face."
"You're no fun. Something about building a city."
Hern sighed irritably. "I don't need a city."
"Let them build it if they want. You don't have to live in it."
"Huh," Hern said, sitting back to think about that. "Not bad, Mage Mallard."
Duck grinned at him. "You should listen to the wisdom of wizards. Not like you've got much of your own."
"Get out," Hern said, flicking a honeycake at him. Duck caught it neatly and stuffed it in his mouth before strolling out. As always, he left Hern unsure whether it would be five minutes or five months before he showed up again.
A week or two later, camping in a green hollow between a ring of mountains, he found himself wandering out of the camp. He sat on a low hill and looked out over the valley. It was a beautiful place, warm and sheltered without being overshadowed. The valley opened out to the south, which a hint of fertile plains beyond. There was space here, enough that their camp looked small, though everyone who managed the kingdom was there somewhere. He had finally grown accustomed to seeing a mixed camp, Heathen and native working together around him, at least. They still came across villages where half the retinue were stared at with loathing. They had all heard of him, though, the heir of two kings, now their king, wherever they had been born.
He still wondered sometimes how he had kept the crown. He hadn't particularly wanted it, but by the time things were calm enough to stop and worry about such things, no one else seemed all that keen on the position. The One had torn the countryside apart, scattering villages, forming new rivers, shaping new valleys. To unite two peoples was hard, but to do it in a broken country was a job he had failed to persuade anyone else to take on.
He still wondered sometimes how Kars Adon would have done it, whether he would have any chance of building his new kingdom. He had had the courage, of course, and had been cunning enough to understand a situation in mere minutes and name as heir the only man with a chance of uniting two people (it had not been a sentimental act, whatever his sister thought. He had worn a crown long enough now to recognise and admire that swift political brilliance, even though it had been born out of a friend's death).
When Kars Adon had described his city, Hern had imagined it in a place like this.
He sat until dusk, wondering if this was the place, if this was what came next.
The next morning Duck stuck his head in the door of Hern's tent before he was properly awake and said brightly, "Tanaqui wants you to stop brooding. You're knotting her threads."
"What?" Hern said groggily.
Duck grinned and disappeared. A moment later, his head appeared again. "Oh, and she said to use the charm or burn it."
Hern threw a pillow at him, which missed and went sailing through the open door. From the sudden commotion outside, a washerwoman had just been struck down by royal bedding. Perhaps, Hern reflected, pulling on enough clothes that he could go and apologise, there were some advantages to having a palace, after all.
That night, he unpacked the charm from its hiding place in the bottom of his private saddlebag. It was a little square of woven rushes, the varying greens and yellows of different plants weaving a symbol in the centre of it.
It had been a gift from his sister Tanaqui, years ago.
"I won't change history for you," she had said, sitting beside him one rainy morning as they nursed bowls of hot soup and stared out into the grey-green world, waiting for the weather to change. "That means this is still just a dream. That's his true name in there, though, so there's some truth in it."
"What is it?" Hern had asked, turning it over uneasily. He still found magic more than a little unreasonable, not least because he seemed to be the only one in his family without a drop of it in him.
"A chance to say goodbye," she told him briskly. "Don't be stupid about it. I miss him too and I'd want the chance, if I were you."
He'd taken it, but never used it. He had told himself that it wouldn't work and that no good had ever come from ghosts, even if one were to believe in such things. He had kept it, though, until it became a good luck piece.
That evening, still camped in the green cradle of the hills, he slipped it under his pillow.
He dreamed of the valley, though now there were no tents or horses, no gathered and noisy retinue. There was only the quiet sigh of the wind hissing over the grass and the faint hum of insects. Then a shadow formed in front of him, where suddenly someone was standing behind him.
Hern turned, fists clenching in anticipation.
"It is you," Kars Adon said in delight, hurrying forward. He still limped, but he wasn't the thin, over-burdened boy Hern remembered. He was older, the age he would have been, dressed in fine, bright-coloured clothes. "Did they make you king?"
"They did," Hern said, twitching his shoulders in discomfort. He didn't know what to do now, was suddenly remembering that they had only spoken once. "Not that I should thank you for that."
"But you're good at it, aren't you?" Kars Adon asked anxiously. "I thought you would be."
"I've survived this long," Hern said, embarrassed. He couldn't think of anything to say after that, and Kars Adon seemed to have the same problem. Hern started walking, swinging his arms to work out some of his awkwardness, until he realised Kars Adon couldn't keep up. He slowed down and they walked across the valley side by side.
After a while, it got so ridiculous that Hern blurted out, "They call me Kern Adon now, some of them."
At the same moment, Kars Adon asked, "Is this a real place?"
They both laughed, and Kars Adon said in a rush, "It took me a while to get used to the name too, after my father died. I was his younger son, you know. No one ever expected much of me."
"So what were you called before?" Hern asked, feeling foolish. He'd never thought about dividing the name from the title before. "Just Kars, or something else entirely."
"Kars," he said, with a little hint of brightness in his smile.
"Kars," Hern repeated. "It's real, yes. We're camped here at the moment. I travel around. Don't like staying in one place much."
Kars nodded approvingly. "Time to settle when everyone knows your face."
"If then," Hern muttered and added, "They want me to build a city."
Hern shrugged. "I know you wanted one. Why?"
"To make things last," Kars said, surprising him. "A kingdom of villages will slide back into pieces when you die, like sand in a pile. A city gives them a centre to look towards, something to hold everything together."
"Hmm," Hern said and they walked on silently for a while. Then he added, "What do you think of this place?"
"It's good," Kars said. "I was looking for somewhere like this."
"I know," Hern said and stopped. "There, to the south, fields?"
"And a marketplace there to the east," Kars said. "Where you can build a flat road from the farms."
And they walked on, planning their city.
When Hern told his advisers to build his city in the valley, they objected. There were no roads, they said, and it was too far from other settlements.
"Build the roads, then," Hern said. "And good, it shouldn't be under the influence of any other towns."
He left them to organise it, pondering roads and their importance.
He moved on, heading into the west towards the Rath estuary. He knew construction work had started on the city, but there was the rest of the country to worry him. With the old river gone, the spring floods were milder, but the coastline was still changing, settling in response to the upturned earth. More and more villages were under threat from the sea, and that created problems along the new coast. He became so engrossed in fishing allocations that he almost neglected to visit his sister Robin, who was living along the coast, above a quiet bay Hern would have dearly liked to make into a new port, if he hadn't known it would upset her.
Tanamil found him asleep over his books, and he woke in his sister's house, to the sound of quiet music.
It was a good few days, full of music and dancing and good food, and they proceeded almost in the correct order, which Hern attributed to Robin's kind heart.
"That and you're making the country far too reasonable," Tanamil said, shaking his head ruefully. "Time's moving a little too fast for me these days."
"Nothing wrong with reason," Hern protested and they argued it back and forth for the rest of his visit.
He wasn't expecting to get a scolding from Robin on his last night.
"You haven't seen your city," she said firmly as she cooked.
"Should I have?" Hern asked, laying her table for her, as he had done for years.
"There are a lot of people working hard to build it. They're disappointed that you haven't visited."
"I'll see it when it's done."
She crossed her arms and frowned at him. "Hern."
"I never asked for a city," he muttered, feeling aggrieved. He liked travelling.
All the same, he went back to the valley, and was horrified at what he saw. The quiet earth was a churning bowl of mud, and there were half-built walls poking out in every direction. The air rang with clattering hammers and shouting voices.
Hern tried not to wince, aware that a lot of the builders were watching him.
"Looks a mess now," one of the workers said cheerfully, dropping a pile of bricks so he could stop to talk, "but it will be a fine place when it's done. These walls will last centuries."
"Not if I pull them down first," Hern muttered.
"That's a fine way to talk," the worker said and turned to grasp Hern by the arm. "I go by the name of Gunn now."
Hern had never meant to be a king, and he didn't stand much on his dignity, but that degree of unconcern was unusual. He stared at the worker, a big, fierce looking man with fair hair curling to his nape and a native accent. Then he looked again, and it clicked into place.
"Not too loud. Someone might try handing me that crown of yours."
"You can have it," Hern said sincerely and grasped his arms in return. "Good to see you. What are you doing here?"
"Oh, I got bored of adventuring and thought I'd come and see what my little brother was up to. Help you out with your city."
"Adventuring?" Hern echoed and then, "You're that Gunn."
Gull grinned, a little bashfully, and said, "You should look around a little. See what we're building. That's your house over there, on the ridge."
Hern turned to look and stuttered in horror. The 'house' was large enough to house fifty, with gleaming roofs and towers and wide windows.
"I didn't ask for that!" he protested.
"We amended your plans," Gull told him, slinging his arm around Hern's neck. "Your people seem to love you. I suppose they've never have to deal with you first thing in the morning."
"It's a palace," Hern protested. "I didn't want-"
"You're a king," Gull reminded him, voice suddenly sober. "In peacetime, that means something different. Your people need to know where to find you."
Hern didn't think he wanted to be found that easily, but he conceded the point grudgingly. Once he saw the palace, however, he began to protest again. It was the vastest building he had ever seen. Gull laughed at him at every protest, however, so he gave in and just looked around in silence.
It was almost finished, and already some of the rooms were furnished. There was a bedchamber ready for him, and the view from the window made him wonder if he was right to protest. From here, the city stretched out before him, and he could see the underlying shapes between the half-finished walls. Gull talked him through it, and by the time dusk began to fall, Hern could almost see what it would become, a city of gold to anchor the heart of the country.
That night, before he slept, he got out Tanaqui's charm and slipped it under his pillow again. He wasn't sure if it still had any potency, but if it did, he had a city to describe.
Besides that, of course, he wanted to discuss roads with someone, particularly how to design them to allow easy portage of goods through the mountains, not to mention the problems with maintaining causeways over the fens.
He was still thinking when he slipped into sleep, lying at rest in the heart of his city.