The twenty-sixth day of November in the 942nd year a.g.l.
I arrived back from my mission a short time ago; I'm writing this in the patrol hut. My three months in Koretia aren't worth recording here, except to say that I had never realized that it was possible to be so homesick in one's own native land. I think that the only reason I didn't feel like this on previous trips is that I always had Carle with me. I don't know how I'll be able to stand waiting until next spring to see Carle, when he returns from his own mission.
It's about an hour after sunset. Quentin stayed to talk with me for a short while after the patrols changed, but he left soon. Devin was wounded last week and sent back to Emor to heal. Since Quentin had been partnering with Devin in order to train him to take over the lieutenancy, the lieutenant has been left without a partner until Devin returns. That means Quentin can't spend time with the day patrol as he usually would, since that would leave part of the pass unwatched.
I haven't yet changed out of my Koretian clothes, but Fowler has requisitioned my thigh-pocket to show the others what its Koretian design looks like. Payne, who has been in charge of the day patrol during Devin's training, has taken the opportunity of my arrival to tell the two newest guards the story of the snowbound patrol, while Levander, who is anxious to demonstrate that he is an old-timer, is contributing details that he begged out of me on our patrols together. The story of our deathly experience in the snow has apparently taken on the status of a legend, for three guards decided to join the patrol after hearing about our experiences. I would have thought that the story would have had the opposite effect.
I plan to wash myself in the waterfall, for after three months in the same clothes I feel—
I was just finishing the above entry when I heard a sound that caused me to fling my journal in my back-sling, throw the back-sling on, and join the rush for the door. It was of course an Immediate Danger whistle, but it was unlike any I had ever heard before. Patrol guards are required to hold a danger whistle for at least six heartbeats, in order to give the other guards time enough to locate where the signal is coming from. This whistle lasted two heartbeats. Nor was that the only reason I joined the patrol in its rush toward the danger, for I had recognized the source of the truncated Immediate Danger whistle: it came from the lieutenant.
By the time I made it out of the hollow, the guards were already scattered. I could hear the whistles from the night patrol coming in, all denying that they had been able to locate the direction of the danger. Near me I could hear the echo of Payne softly cursing. I paid no attention to Payne's words, but closed my eyes and listened to the mountains. Then I began to run, whistling to the others as I went.
What I had heard was a man's ragged breathing, and what I saw, when I arrived before all the others, was Quentin: his eyes were closed, his empty dagger-hand was pressed against the stain on his right side, and he was sagging in the arms of the border-breacher who was holding against him a bloody blade.
The hunted and I stared at each other for a brief moment. Like me, he was dressed in the tunic of a Koretian lesser free-man; like me, he was young, perhaps seventeen or eighteen. In the dim moonlight, I could see that his face was light brown. He was staring at me with wide eyes, and he was breathing nearly as heavily as the lieutenant. Then his head swung around and he took a step back toward the mountain wall, dragging his fainting hostage as he went. The point of his dagger started in toward Quentin's heart.
"Stay back!" I shouted in Common Koretian for the breacher's benefit. Payne hesitated, then signalled the others to halt. They stood where they were, in a prickly semi-circle, the thorns of their blades pointed toward the hunted.
The breacher was staring at me again. He said, "You're Koretian."
"Yes." I saw Payne's gaze switch from the breacher to me, but this was no time for qualifications. I added in Border Koretian, "I'm a borderlander, like you."
The breacher stared at me a moment more, his breath still heavy. Quentin's eyes were closed, and the blood was continuing to flow from his side. Finally the breacher said in Border Koretian, "Tell them to go away. I'll talk to you, but no one else."
I saw one of the new guards glance over to Fowler with a questioning look on his face, but Fowler shook his head. With Quentin unconscious and Devin in Emor, I was the only one who understood what the breacher was saying.
"Get back." I motioned with my hand to the others. "He wants to talk to me."
I thought I saw an expression pass across Payne's face, but I had no time to analyze his reaction; I returned my attention to the breacher. Behind me, Payne whistled the patrol back. The breacher's eyes flicked from me to them, and then back to me. When he had apparently decided that they were far enough away, he said, "Get me out of this. I'll see that you're well paid by the King."
I shook my head. "I'm in service to the Chara. You're a spy?"
For a moment, I thought he would deny it; then his lips twisted. "I've made that obvious enough, I guess. My first mission. Looks like it might be my last."
"Surrender to them," I urged, my thoughts on his bleeding hostage. "I promise you, they won't kill you at once."
"No, they'll place me on trial and then kill me. I heard all about them in my training, from a man whose blood brother was executed by the patrol. Look." The breacher's voice deepened. "You evidently care about this lieutenant of theirs, or you wouldn't be bothering to talk to me. You get me out of this, or I swear I'll kill him."
"You'll be killed yourself if you do that." My voice sounded calm; my body was cold. I wondered how long this conversation would last. Every minute was bringing Quentin closer to death from loss of blood.
"So? Blood for blood; at least I'll have avenged my own death."
I knew then that there was no point in talking further with him. He was Koretian through and through; he could not think further than payment for his own death. "If I help you, will you let the lieutenant go?"
The breacher's eyes narrowed. "If you take a blood vow."
Fowler still had my thigh-pocket with its dagger, but since I was in Koretian clothes, of course I was armed. I drew my belt-dagger, nicked my palm, and made my vow. The breacher looked uneasy when I replaced the god's name with the Chara's, but he evidently decided that this was no time to quibble. "All right," he said. "Now you tell the patrol. I don't want any trouble from them."
Payne and the others came running forward as soon as I whistled. I stopped them from coming too near. "I'm taking him back to the Koretian border," I told them, speaking Common Koretian for the breacher's benefit. "If you promise to let us pass, the lieutenant won't be harmed."
There was a long silence, longer than I had expected. Then Payne said, "Blood brother of yours, is he?"
I stared at him, then at the others, who were beginning to murmur amidst themselves. The two newest guards nodded in response to what Payne had said. Levander looked like the Sun God in the moment he burned his enemies.
I stared down at my left hand. My blood was fresh from the blade-cut.
"Look," I said, a little desperately, "this isn't a time to argue. The lieutenant is dying."
Payne's expression turned hard; too late, I realized that my words could be taken as a threat. But all that Payne said was, "If you release the lieutenant, we will permit both of you safe passage."
Sylvanus, the patrol's latest physician, gave an audible sigh of relief; he had been casting uneasy glances toward the lieutenant. Not wanting to prolong matters and further shorten Quentin's life, I beckoned to the breacher. Payne whistled the patrol back, and all of them watched, gloomy or angry or cold-eyed, as the breacher hurried past them, leaving his victim lying motionless on the ground.
We had reached the path again when I heard my name whistled. I looked up and saw Payne standing on the ledge above us. Sylvanus was kneeling beside Quentin, wrapping cloth around his wound.
"Adrian," said Payne. "A suggestion for you. When you reach the Koretian border . . . just keep walking. That would be safest."
I've written all of the above entry in snatches whenever I and the breacher paused during our walk to the border. He hasn't spoken a word since we left the patrol; I think he is regretting having been so candid with me. I have little to say to him either; my mind is back at the patrol hut, wondering what is taking place there.
The twenty-seventh day of November in the 942nd year a.g.l.
I awoke in the middle of the night to find that the breacher had left me. I supposed that, since we had walked beyond the patrol area, he found me an unnecessary burden. I waited only long enough to listen for his footsteps; he was walking south, as he had promised. Then I hurried back to the hut.
I reached it a couple of hours before dawn, but everyone in the day patrol was still awake. They were all standing in the hut, talking in low voices to each other. Their conversation cut short like the life of a sacrifice the moment I slipped inside.
Payne had his sword out before I could speak. The others were slower, and I noticed that Fowler didn't bother to draw his at all. I wondered whether he was trusting me to remember an old lesson I had learned under his tutelage.
"How is the lieutenant?" I asked, trying to ignore the blades pointing at me.
"Why, do you want to make sure you killed him?" shouted Levander. He looked as though he was trying not to cry.
Payne waved him silent. "You are under arrest," he told me. "I charge you with conspiracy in the attempted murder of Quentin, Lieutenant of the Border Mountain Patrol."
My body sagged with relief at the sound of the word "attempted." I said, "I'd like to see the lieutenant."
"You are under arrest." Payne gestured toward Fowler for assistance. Fowler ignored him.
"Payne," I said patiently, "I am a spy under the immediate care of the Chara. Only the Chara or one of his army officials can call for my arrest. If the lieutenant wants me arrested, he'll tell you so. I want to see him."
Payne hesitated. One of the new guards muttered, "Have you heard of that law?"
"Wish Carle was here," muttered Levander. "He'd know."
Fowler finally moved; he came up close to Payne and whispered something in his ear. Payne frowned at whatever was said, but as Fowler stepped back, Payne told me, "The lieutenant will probably want to question you. You will be taken to him now. Unarmed."
The two new guards, who had evidently learned their lessons in Koretian customs, sucked in their breaths. Levander looked highly alarmed at this development. Fowler merely rolled his eyes.
As for myself, I was trying, with all my might, to keep from using my blade. I was an Emorian, I told myself. If I had been walking in Emor, in civilian clothes, I would not be wearing a blade. To give up my blade meant nothing. It meant only that I was no longer Koretian.
Somehow, I managed to get the blade out of its sheath and into Payne's hand without using it on him. I felt as naked as though he had stripped me of my clothes. Payne gestured to Sylvanus, who had just emerged from the storeroom and was listening to this exchange with an uneasy expression on his face. "Sylvanus, escort this Koretian to see the lieutenant. Do not allow him to come closer than a body's length to the lieutenant. If he causes any trouble, capture him and sound the Immediate Danger whistle." His dark gaze said, as clearly as his words, that he considered the Probable Danger whistle to have been sounded already.
The lieutenant was lying on the cot that was brought out as a sick-bed when needed by the patrol. The storeroom was warm with the heat of a brazier near the door. Sylvanus took the opportunity to poke its flames with an iron rod, never removing his gaze from me. I ignored him. Standing next to the door, I asked Quentin, "How are you, sir?"
He gave something that faintly resembled a smile. His head was propped up with the patrol's only supply of pillows; blankets covered his legs and torso, including his wound. "I have been worse," he replied.
This was no more than the truth, unfortunately; it was a wonder to me that Quentin had managed to live this long. He still showed no signs of retiring – had not had the opportunity, actually, since both Devin and Payne would need to be fully trained before Quentin dropped his reins of power.
"The light here—" The lieutenant stopped to cough. Blood spattered onto his handkerchief with the cough. I glanced at Sylvanus; he was frowning, but showed no signs of greater concern, so I turned my attention back to Quentin. He said, gasping in an attempt to regain control, "Hard to see you in this dim light. Will you come closer, lieutenant?"
It felt odd to be addressed in such a manner by a man whom I had once served. In any case, extra civility seemed best under these circumstances. "I'm afraid I can't, sir. I'm not permitted to."
"Not permitted—?" He stopped, and his gaze travelled over to Sylvanus, who was watching me carefully. Then his eyes went back to me, and I saw his gaze drop to the empty sheath at my belt. "Soldier Sylvanus," he said slowly, "I would like to know what has taken place in my absence."
Sylvanus hesitated, glancing at me. I said nothing, so he recounted the tale. His narrative was true, as far as it went, though colored by his perception of my motives.
"I see." It was difficult, at all times, to read Quentin's emotions, and now it was impossible. For a long moment, he was silent; then he said, "Sylvanus, I would like some wine, if you will permit that to your patient."
Sylvanus glanced at me before saying, "I am supposed to be on guard here, sir."
"Between us and our four blades, I am sure we can protect ourselves against an unarmed man." Quentin's expression remained blank; I could not tell whether he was joking. "I would appreciate that wine now, if you please."
His tone left no doubt that he was giving an order. Sylvanus squeezed past me in the narrow space between the shelves, watching me over his shoulder as he drew wine from a tap. I stayed where I was. Quentin was no longer watching me, and I wondered whether I should leave, or whether it would be better to wait to see whether an order for arrest was forthcoming. I could feel sickness building in my belly.
Sylvanus knelt down to help the lieutenant higher up onto the pillows, so that he could easily sip the wine. Quentin drank from the cup, still not bothering to look my way. I felt the sickness increase.
"Thank you," he told Sylvanus when he had drained half the cup. "I appreciate your assistance. Lieutenant, would you be willing to finish this wine for me?"
My breath stopped. Sylvanus stared at Quentin, slack-mouthed. The small smile was back on the lieutenant's face as he reached out his hand to offer me the wine.
Slowly I walked forward, knelt next to the cot, took the cup, and drank from it. Next to me, Quentin said, "Thank you, Sylvanus; you may go now. I would like to be alone with my wine-friend."
Sylvanus had sense enough not to argue. I could see that color was beginning to rise in his cheeks. After another, swift glance at me, he stood and made his way to the door.
As the door closed behind him, Quentin shook his head. "You train them day after day, and then you learn that your lessons have been for naught. Thank you for saving my life, Adrian." His voice had turned quiet.
I swallowed the last of the wine of friendship before asking, "How did you know?"
"It was the only possible explanation for your actions."
I gave a laugh that, even to me, sounded bitter. "Didn't you consider the possibility that the other guards are right about me?"
"I would like to think," said Quentin carefully, "that I have a certain amount of intelligence. Adrian, you are a spy. You are one of the subtlest, smartest men I know. If you had planned to betray the Chara, you would hardly have done so in the presence of a dozen witnesses, then returned here in order to allow yourself the convenience of being arrested and placed under the high doom. . . . Thank you, by the way, for being patient with Payne. I almost wish you'd duelled him when he demanded your blade; that would make him less careless about spouting forth such demands in the future."
I shrugged, feeling uncomfortable. "I'm an Emorian."
"And you're a very forgiving man. I thank you for that as well."
I chewed on my lower lip for a moment before raising my eyes to meet Quentin's. "I'm not sure I am. I mean, I'm not sure I've forgiven them."
Quentin said nothing. He had black blood on his left cheek from the struggle with the breacher. Under the flickering light of the brazier, his gaze was steady upon me.
"The newer guards I can understand," I said slowly. "They don't know me well. And I think Fowler was on my side. But Levander – he and I were partners. And Payne and I were snowbound together. How could they have ever thought I would help a breacher, except to save an Emorian's life?"
"You are of Koretian blood," Quentin said quietly. "It takes a long time for some men to forget that, as I found during my early years as a patrol guard."
I stared at Quentin's hands. His face's pallor from the wound made him look more northern than usual, but his hands were nearly as dark as the blanket they lay motionless upon. "Maybe," I said. "And maybe it will take me some time to forget this. I'm not sure I can ever forgive it."
After a while, I said, "Aren't you going to say anything more?"
"Urge you to forgive them? No. You voice a dilemma, and you spoke the answer to that dilemma a short while ago. Once you pair the answer to the question, I'm sure you'll see your way clear. In the meantime . . . I can't regret entirely that this episode has happened."
I looked down at the cup in my hand. "Nor I, if you're referring to the wine. But I'm sorry that you were forced into the position of having to offer it."
His faint smile returned then. "Say rather that I was given the opportunity to do what I should have done long ago." He hesitated, then added, "When you grow up under the care of a man who alternates daily between telling you he loves you and giving you harsh beatings, it's difficult to extend trust to others. Carle understands that from his own experience, and can take that into account in dealing with me. But I wasn't sure whether you . . ." His voice trailed off.
I gave him my own faint smile. "Have you forgotten what event caused me to leave Koretia?"
After a moment, he gave half a laugh. "Yes, I suppose I had. Well, then, it's right that the three of us should share the wine of friendship, since we share that experience. And as long as the chain remains unbroken—"
He stopped suddenly, choked by a fit of coughing. The blood came more heavily onto his handkerchief. Concerned, I set the cup aside. "Shall I fetch Sylvanus?" I asked.
He nodded, unable to respond otherwise, and I quickly rose to my feet.
The day patrol was still standing in a cluster, except for Fowler, who was rolling up his pallet to leave room for the night patrol's pallets. Once I had finished beckoning to Sylvanus, Fowler tossed me my thigh-pocket, with its dagger still sheathed within.
I waited until Sylvanus had hurried into the storeroom, and the coughing there had been replaced by the sound of Quentin's steady voice; then I gave Fowler a quiet word of thanks for the thigh-pocket and for his earlier intervention.
He shrugged; there was still no affection between us, but as he put it, "I know what you are capable of. Duelling your partner when he gets on your nerves, yes. Taking a blood vow of friendship with a breacher who has just attacked your former army official – never. Anyone who knows anything about blood lines of loyalty in Koretia could have figured that out."
He raised his voice as he spoke. I glanced over my shoulder at the cluster of remaining patrol guards. The two new guards were avoiding my eye. Levander was looking to Payne for guidance. Payne, when he saw me looking his way, came forward. He silently handed me my belt-dagger.
Gazing into his narrowed eyes, I knew that he would never beg my forgiveness. He had too much pride for that, and he had made too big a fool of himself. If I made clear that I considered him a fool, his anger at himself would transform into anger at me. And so it would build between us, this bitter enmity that had begun with a simple mistake.
"I'm an Emorian." I heard again the words that I had spoken in the storeroom. Those were the words that Quentin believed offered me the answer to my dilemma, I realized. A Koretian would allow his resentment to build higher and higher until it could only be resolved by bloodshed. An Emorian, if he truly served the Chara, either placed charges against the man who had harmed him, or he set the matter aside.
"I'm overdue to return to Emor," I said to Payne, giving him something that approached a friendly smile, "but would you like to play a game of Law Links before I go?"
Surprise entered Payne's face, followed by relief, quickly hidden. "It is too close to my duty hours," he replied. "Perhaps next time."
I nodded. "I'll look forward to it." I waved my farewell to Levander and the others, gave the free-man's greeting to Sylvanus as he emerged from the storeroom, and left the patrol hut with a high heart, having taken yet another step further in my road to serving the Chara.