Eventually I had to concede that I would not manage to learn the particularly daring leap I'd been practicing by the end of the day. I'd been training late into the evening — longer than I'd intended — and the sun was dipping low on the horizon as I made my final climb, before dropping down to a crouch on the dusty ground. The muscles on my arms were burning; I'd pushed myself hard, and no doubt I'd feel it the next day. The air was dry, and hot, and I wiped the sweat from my face, looking around the empty training space for my fellow Fives adversaries attached to Anise's stable. The place was deserted — I must have lost track of the time. I was unwinding the strips of cloth that I'd bound around my wrists and head, and looking about for somewhere to store or carry them, when I spotted the tall figure, hovering unobtrusively on the edge of the training ground. I blinked, and rubbed my eyes — surely I was mistaken — and then, with the last of my energy, I closed the distance between us, and paused, exhausted, overwhelmed, and momentarily speechless.
Kal bent his head down towards mine, and for a while we just stood there, resting our foreheads against one another, silently relearning each other after so many months apart. When I did speak at last, my words came out in a jumbled rush.
'Has it really been six months? How did you know where to find me? How long have you been standing here? How did you know that I'd still be training at this late hour?'
'Jes,' said Kal, fiddling with the strips of cloth that were still hanging from my hand, 'does it really surprise you that my assumption proved correct — that your dedication to the Fives would keep you training long after the other adversaries from your stable had finished for the day?'
I felt myself smiling.
'I suppose that's not an unreasonable assumption,' I said.
'As for your other questions,' said Kal, 'yes, it has been six months, and I'm back as promised for my first leave from the army. I knew you were attached to this stable because Mis and Dusty have kept me informed, in a roundabout way. And I've been standing here for a while, but that's no matter. I could watch you run the Fives, or train, forever.'
On hearing that, I pulled away from him, grinning broadly.
'Are you sure you're not just watching me because you're contemplating an ill-considered return to the Fives competition circuit and you want to learn my weaknesses? It won't work!'
'Oh, Jessamy, I have missed you,' he said. 'So, as a celebrated Fives adversary — oh yes, news of your triumphs has reached us, even out in the desert — what kind of adventures were you planning on having this evening?'
I had been intending to meet my friends for a night out in the Lantern District. It was the Moth Festival, a celebration of life and memory and commemoration, and there would be food stalls and brilliantly decorated candles and street performers. We were going to have a few post-training drinks, and then see where the night took us. My original plan had been to wash off the sweat and dust of training with a long soak in the baths attached to the stable, but the longer practice session had made that an impossibility, never mind the unexpected arrival of Kal.
'Do you mind waiting while I clean myself up a bit?' I asked. 'Then we could meet up with my friends from the stable. We were going to celebrate the festival together.'
'That sounds perfect,' Kal said.
By the time I'd washed off the grime of training, the sun had almost sunk below the horizon, and the sky was streaked with brilliant swathes of orange, peach, and fiery crimson. The streets were crowded as people made their way towards the festivities, and I took Kal's hand and pulled him impatiently through the slow-moving hordes. I was worried there wouldn't be space in the tavern, but by the time I'd manoeuvred us inside, I could see that my friends had been there for a while, and had managed to claim a table.
I tensed a little as we approached them, concerned that someone might recognise Kal — to me he was so blindingly, obviously himself that I could not imagine mistaking him. I shouldn't have worried. I saw no flash of recognition in anyone's eyes.
'This is my friend ... my friend Kallos' — I could never get his pseudonym to run smoothly from my lips — 'We know each other from my time in the resistance. He's a spider scout now, back in Saryenia for his first leave.'
I'd been speaking Saroese with Kal — old habits were hard to break, and that was the first language we'd ever spoken with one another — but switched to Efean upon joining my friends. Kal spoke up in the same language, his Saroese accent strong, but his words fluent.
'It's good to be back from the desert. And now, might I buy you celebrated adversaries a drink?'
His offer was greeted with good-natured cheers, and he headed off to the kitchen door — the crowds crammed into the tavern during the festival were such that table service was clearly impossible — copper coins rattling in his hand, as I slid into a space beside the table.
Any doubts I'd had about what my friends would think of me showing up with a Saroese boy were put to rest swiftly. Kal's round of drinks had done some of the work of easing him into the group, and the culture that had sprung up after the revolution — in Saryenia at least — took care of the rest. I'd noticed that people were making a conscious effort to put some aspects of the past — the division between Efean and Saroese, in particular — behind them. This had found expression in a reluctance among Saryenian residents to pry too deeply into people's pasts, and to accept at face value their reasons for sticking around in the new Efea. If a Saroese person had remained, and they were integrating into the new ways, not attempting to recreate past inequalities or assert former privileges, people tended to assume good intentions and refrain from asking too many questions. I had found this kind of willful turning aside to be an impossibility myself — I think I had seen too much to make it feel like anything other than naïveté — but I was pleased that tonight it was working to my advantage.
Kal was asking questions about the festival, which hadn't existed during his time as a Saroese noble. Since the revolution there'd been an explosion of festivities, based on half-remembered stories passed down through generations of Efean families, painstakingly attempting to recreate rituals, ceremonies and celebrations that had not existed within living memory. The end results were probably nothing like the festivals of our ancestors, but were echoes of them, half-remembered, adapted and changed, with the inevitable incorporation of Saroese elements that were inescapable after centuries of rule. My sister Maraya sometimes expressed frustration that any research she did into Efean festivals involved reading about them in Saroese sources, the only written records, which meant any attempts at reconstructing these ancient affairs were filtered through Saroese eyes. For me, however, these hybrid, half-remembered, much changed festivals were the perfect symbol of the new Efea — built on history and memories, but transformed by the passage of time, and the people who lived here.
The Moth Festival was no different. It had grown out of a hazy reference in an old Saroese scroll which hinted at an Efean belief that moths carried memories to the spirits of the dead, and the recollections of several older women who'd said their grandmothers had talked about decorating candles with moth designs and setting them alight as a ritual of remembrance. People, hungry for new rituals, but keen as ever to have something to celebrate (particularly if food stalls and late night revelling could be involved) latched onto the idea, and so it was that Kal had arrived back in Saryenia in time for the first Moth Festival in living memory.
My friends from the stable, keen to get outside and experience the delights of the festival, finished up Kal's round of drinks quickly and then hauled us out of the tavern with them. The streets were even more crowded than they had been when Kal and I had left the training grounds. Children were weaving underfoot, holding what looked like giant moth puppets, shrieking wildly. The food stalls lined both sides of the street, with sellers shouting about their wares in a cacophony of sound. Snatches of raucous song followed us as we made our way towards the busiest part of the Lantern District, and we all had to hang onto each other to avoid getting swept away in the crowd. Kal's hand was firm in mine; I didn't want to let him go.
We stopped off to buy food — hot pancakes filled with ground almonds and cinnamon, and fruit baked in spices. I was ravenous after the day's training, and went back to the stalls for second helpings. My fellow Fives adversaries wandered around, looking at the decorated candles on offer, and dodging out of the way of the more enthusiastic children, who were waving their moth puppets about in the air as they ran in and out of the stalls. Kal and I walked around the area at a more sedate pace, licking the remains of the cinnamon-covered almonds from our fingers. The air was crisp, and the lights from the hundreds of candles shone brightly against the night sky.
We had paused to admire a particularly intricate display of candles — all dark red, with moths set in vivid gold — when I heard someone calling my name. I turned to see my sister Maraya and her husband Polodos waving at me across the sea of people. Polodos had their six-month-old baby, my niece Kiyara, wrapped up warmly against the night air and tied snugly across his chest. As they approached us, I could see that Kiyara was fast asleep.
'This is my friend Kallos, whom I met when we were fighting in Efea's rising,' I said, pointedly, to avoid them loudly recognising Kal in front of the festival crowds.
Maraya raised her eyebrows slightly, but she and Polodos went along with my charade, asking 'Kallos' how long he'd been back in Saryenia and how he was enjoying the festival, and answering his questions about their young child. We all bought candles from the stall whose wares I'd been admiring, before going our separate ways. I could see that Maraya was known to many in the crowd, and she kept having to pause as people waved her down, wanting to engage her in conversation, ply her with food, or point out the candles and puppets they'd made for the festival.
'It makes me so happy that Maraya has found such a welcoming place for herself in the new Efea,' I said to Kal. 'Back in the old days of Saroese rule, she would've been expected to remain behind closed doors, grateful merely to have been allowed to live — marrying Polodos would have been out of the question! And now she's a mother, and a scribe, and a welcome part of the community.'
'Some of my comrades in the army complain that change isn't happening quickly enough — that there are still too many remnants of the bad, old Saroese ways, and that they won't rest easy until every trace has gone — but when I look at you and your sisters, I can see the reality of the changes in people's everyday lives.'
Without noticing, we'd left the main cluster of food sellers, and drifted slightly away from the hubbub of the crowd, towards a little shop that sold sweet pastries. Spotting two familiar figures inside, I drew Kal towards it.
'And you haven't even seen all my sisters yet,' I said.
Amaya was sitting at a table close to the window. A half-eaten pastry lay forgotten in front of her, and the whole area was strewn with various scrolls and notes, which she consulted occasionally, before launching into a declamation. Denya sat patiently beside her with a long suffering expression on her face.
'Try it one more time, Denya,' said Amaya. 'Start from "What makes you think I'm giving you a choice, Spider? You'll join my stable, or your family will suffer!"'
Denya had spotted us. She switched from Efean — the language of the dialogue she had clearly been helping Amaya to rehearse — back into Saroese, which she was still more comfortable speaking.
'Amaya,' she said, 'Jessamy is here.'
'What are you rehearsing? And what words has Ro put in your mouth? I may need to have words of my own with him!' I said.
Amaya shuffled the scrolls impatiently, trying to restore some semblance of order to the chaotic collection.
'Oh, Ro has written a history of Efea's rising. It's nowhere near ready to perform — he's still trying to get the dialogue perfect — but he's got me going over the lines to see what works and what doesn't. I'm going to be playing you — that's the main role in the play — I may need your help in capturing the exact tone of wounded righteous anger and self-assurance!'
I rolled my eyes. The idea of a dramatisation of my role in the rebellion made me profoundly embarrassed, but my problems were with Ro and not Amaya, so I bit down my irritation and pushed Kal forward.
'How fitting that you're talking about the revolution! This is a friend I met during that time, who's now out with the spider scouts in the desert. His name is Kallos,' I said, placing a lot of emphasis on the name. 'Kallos, this is another of my sisters, Amaya, and her beloved, Denya.'
Both Denya and Amaya obviously recognised him, and Amaya at least was not likely to play along with my ruse in the same way as Polodos and Maraya. However, Denya gave her a warning look and a nudge under the table.
'Lovely to meet you, Kallos,' said Amaya, sweetly.
'You too, Honoured Lady,' he replied, and, nodding to Denya 'and you also, Honoured Lady. Now, Jes is no doubt ravenously hungry again, so I was about to buy her a plate of pastries. Would this plan meet with your approval?'
'Make sure you get some of the ones with cream and rose petals,' said Amaya in answer.
We made short work of the pastries after Kal returned — I think he managed to eat one, while the three of us devoured the rest. Amaya picked a moment that Kal, Denya and I all had food in our mouths to demand that we help her practice her dialogue. This was how I came to be reading lines as Lord Gargaron, while Kal took the part of my father, and Denya played Kal himself — even Amaya wouldn't have had the gumption to make Kal read the lines of Ro's dramatised Lord Kalliarkos, especially in front of the audience of weary festival-goers that seemed to have sprung up around us.
I had to admit that Ro's play was very good. He had managed to capture the cadences and tones of everyone's voices, without losing the overly polished, stylised manner of talking that was used in all Efean plays. Even characters Ro himself had never met sounded like themselves. The crowd in the pastry-shop cheered and gasped at all the appropriate moments, and waited patiently whenever Amaya called a halt to make notes and changes to Ro's dialogue. Kal seemed to be tolerating things remarkably well, considering he was unlikely to have imagined that he would spend his leave recreating the events that caused him to lose his name, his identity, and all of his family.
Eventually, we'd practiced up to a point that Amaya deemed sufficient, and, after a last round of fiery drinks poured out from a bottle belonging to a member of Amaya's adoring crowd, Kal and I headed back out into the night. We were still carrying our unlit candles, and I suggested that we light and carry them to the sea wall, where the other festival-goers were placing them. It was meant to symbolise the shedding of painful memories, and the protective warmth and light of happier moments in the past.
We lit our candles on a brand that was hanging from one of the stalls, and strolled slowly through the dark, winding Saryenian streets, enjoying the thinning crowds, and the starlight, and each other's quiet company. He was not so familiar with this part of the city, and was content to let me lead him through lanes, over walls, and between buildings, until we reached the East Harbour District. The sea walls were alight with the flames of a thousand candles, shining brilliantly against the inky black of the water and the curving sweep of the sky. Kal and I added our own candles to the glittering mass of light, and, without needing to discuss it, paused for several moments to watch the flames burn, thinking of the burden of all our terrible, difficult memories, as well as the things from our pasts to which we could no longer return. Tentatively, carefully, I reached out to take his hand, twining our fingers together, so that the two of us could take comfort in each other's presence. I felt Kal lean into me, the tension in his body slowly relaxing, as if the burden of the memories he'd been relieving was slowly leaving him. He kissed my closed eyes.
'It's strange, isn't it?' he said. 'I thought it would be painful to come back, and in some ways it has been — the shadows of my memories are there in every corner of the city — but at the same time, it's as if a great weight has been lifted. "Kallos" can drop by and visit you at the stables, or spend the evening out carousing with you and your friends from the Fives, or bump into your sisters, and it's unremarkable in a way that similar encounters with "Kalliarkos" could never have been.'
'I know,' I said. 'I mean, my sisters clearly recognised you, but they also knew that to address you by your real name in public would have been a terrible idea, and even Amaya seemed content to just let the two of us slip into these new roles, Fives adversary and spider scout, with a line drawn on the past.'
I pulled his face towards mine to kiss him.
'I didn't think it would be this easy,' he said. 'I didn't dare to imagine that we would be able to shed our old lives like snakeskin, and go on living.'
'Before you get too carried away,' I said, 'bear in mind that you're going to have to face my mother! I'd intended to sleep in my quarters at Anise's, but we're much closer to my mother's house, and it's late, and I'm tired.'
'I have faced down enemies untold, and lived a life of deprivation in the desert, and dealt with the monstrous ambitions of my ghastliest relatives, and yet still the prospect of your mother and her disapproval terrifies me the most,' he said.
Some of the candles had burnt themselves out, and their smoke rose in curving twists into the sky. Kal and I turned to make our way back towards the streets, and the crowds, and home.
'That being said,' Kal continued, 'I knew from the first time I met you how important your family was to you. They're foundation that keeps you on solid ground, the platforms from which you launch yourself into the air, the resin that gives your hands grip when you climb. They're what helps you find your way surely through the maze, the good sense that warns you of traps and pitfalls and shows you the right obstacles to overcome. You would not be you without them.'
A discarded moth puppet flew across the path in front of us, carried towards the sea by an errant gust of wind.
'How long is your leave?' I asked Kal, my hand in his, as we began our slow walk back.
'Not long enough,' he replied.