When Cord woke outside the lair of the spider queen, he didn't realize there was anything wrong.
At least not aside from the thick sticky webbing that bound him where he lay. She'd done him one kindness, at least: it wasn't covering his face. He could curse all he liked, as he wriggled and squirmed on the ground, until at last he had a finger on the hilt of the hunting knife at his waist.
He cut the stuff away from himself, peeled trailing loops of it off where they would have clung, and at last was able to leap to his feet. He scowled one last time at the low dark entrance to the spider queen's cave, and then shook his head and turned to look for the trail that led back to the village. Tomorrow, perhaps, he would come back—with a torch. And some javelins. She had been so quick, scrabbling about on the ceiling like that, with nothing but the gleam of carapace through the blackness to show him where. And the chittering in the background—she had many children.
But surely she could be defeated. The blind man knew how to fight monkeys; why not spiders, too? Cord snorted at the thought and shook his head, and then ducked down to push his way forward through the underbrush.
If he had spoken to anyone in the village, he might have known then. But he didn't. He was thinking much too hard about the spider queen, about his plans for her. Someone called out to him, and he waved a hand to acknowledge but didn't reply.
And then he was alone again, following the wide slow river out to where he'd left the blind man at their camp. Nothing to say, and no one to say it to—how was he to know?
So he had no warning. When he came in sight of the camp, and the blind man waved without looking, Cord meant to tell him about the village and the spider queen; he had no intention at all of saying, "Nothing happened."
And yet when he opened his mouth, that was what he heard.
The blind man couldn't see whatever look must have crossed Cord's face, but his brow furrowed anyway. "Intriguing, that you should make such a point of telling me so," he murmured after a moment, mild and faintly curious.
Cord sighed through his nose, irritated. I don't know why I said that, he decided to say. "There's nothing else to tell," he heard. And oh, how terribly strange it was—to feel his own tongue moving, to be so certain the words would be as he'd chosen, and then to have his own voice say another thing entirely.
However wrong the words might be, he could still choose the tone with which he said them, and the blind man's eyebrows had begun to rise. "You don't sound pleased about it," the blind man offered, and here, surely, was a chance to make it clear to him that something was amiss.
"I'm delighted," Cord gritted out, and the little smile that so often played around the corners of the blind man's mouth bloomed into a grin.
"Ah," he said, half a sigh, and brought his hands together in a soft clap. "I see. Someone in the village told you about the spider queen, and you went to see for yourself. They must have told you not to speak to her—but you did. And you lied."
"No," Cord said, and realized two things at once: that was exactly what he had intended to say, and that meant that the only reason it had actually come out of his mouth was because—
"You lied; and the spider queen hates that, because weaving webs to snare the unwary is her task. So she has cursed you," said the blind man, sounding much too amused about it, "and now lies are all you have."
Cord looked away, biting his tongue, and made himself think about Zetan's book, about looking inside only to see his own face; about the mountaintop, after, and the blind man handing him the flute. He breathed in slowly, and then out again, and when he was done, the frustration wasn't choking him anymore.
He hadn't lied to the spider queen. He hadn't. She had been taunting him, on and on, and she—she had been able to look inside his head, somehow. She had known about the blind man, had laughed her chittering laugh and asked Cord why he traveled with the blind man, and—
And he had told the truth. There was more to learn, that was all. He'd glimpsed something in Zetan's sanctuary, a sense of understanding and certainty and peace, profound and overflowing. But it came and went, it was elusive; he had more to learn before it would truly be his. And he would learn what he needed from the blind man.
Not a lie. But it had made the spider queen laugh again, and Cord had demanded to know why, and then—
Well. Then he'd ended up in a web on the ground in the forest, on his back, swearing and stuck to himself.
"Can she undo it?" Cord said carefully, and ah—questions were safe, then, because they were neither lies nor truth.
"Perhaps," the blind man said. "But better you should ask: will she."
Cord waited, but the blind man didn't continue. "All right, then," Cord bit out. "Will she?"
"Hmm? Oh—I wouldn't count on it," the blind man said absently, reaching for the flute on the ground beside him with a smile. "No, you're better off heading for the mountains to the east. Djimara is the tallest of them; and near its foot there is a spring, a sacred pool, famed for the fantastical purifying properties of its waters. I know the way. It won't take long."
"How wonderful," Cord muttered, dropping down beside the blind man with a sigh.
"Perhaps next time," the blind man added, "you'll stop and think a little more carefully before you go wandering off into the lairs of spider queens. Hmm?"
Cord snorted. "Oh, I've learned my lesson," he said, and only when the blind man tipped his head back and laughed did Cord realize he'd given his own words the lie in the speaking.
To get to the mountains, to Djimara, they had to cross the vast open plain to the east of them, on the other side of the river; and then the forest of Liree, which crawled up into the foothills as far as it could, until the mountains grew so tall the trees had all been shrugged from their great shoulders.
Cord wasn't inclined to waste time. But the blind man, as ever, didn't seem to feel any particular sense of urgency.
Then again, he had no reason to. He was having far too much fun.
"I do appreciate your generosity," the blind man said, swinging the flute idly in his hand so that it sung with brief bright notes. "How courteous of you, to offer me your assistance."
Cord pressed his lips together and said nothing. He hadn't offered anything—it was just that when the blind man had asked whether Cord wouldn't like to carry his rolled-up cloak for a while, Cord had laughed and unthinkingly opened his mouth to say Oh, I don't think so. And of course what had come out was I'd like nothing better.
Which had definitely been a lie.
"Whenever you'd like me to take it back," the blind man added blithely, "you need only say as much."
"Of course," Cord said, through gritted teeth; which was a lie, because he couldn't, and the blind man knew as much!
A jingle, two, of the blind man's toe-bell, and the blind man was in front of him—facing him, though of course not looking at him, and walking backwards. Which wasn't much of a feat, Cord supposed, given that the blind man couldn't see where he was going no matter which way he faced.
"What a puzzle," the blind man murmured. "If only you wished to keep my cloak, you'd be able to ask me to take it from you! But instead you wish to be rid of it, and so you carry it."
Cord slowed a little, narrowing his eyes. That sounded like one of the blind man's little hidden lessons, the really annoying kind.
"Tell me, Cord," the blind man said. "Is it so very heavy?"
Cord glanced down at the cloak. He'd tossed it over his shoulder, opposite his own bag on the other side. It was about as warm as his own vest; not as thick, no fur to line it, but larger and drapier. A little scratchy, but neatly woven—and it struck Cord suddenly, somewhere deep within himself, to think that the blind man might have made it. That Cord might be holding something upon which the blind man had spent a great deal of time and care, that—that it spent its days closer to the blind man than anything else except perhaps his shirt—
"Like a boulder," Cord heard himself say, and then managed to close his mouth again before he could complete the lie: and I'd rather you took it back now, if it's all the same to you.
The blind man was smiling at him. "Heavy indeed," he said, and Cord made a face at him but made no move to return the cloak.
Cord spent the next two days speaking as rarely as possible. The spider queen's curse was wretchedly irritating, and he was more than ready to be cured of it. The blind man accommodated his poor temper with mild steady patience that was as frustrating as it was comforting—as if he could have gone on the same way forever and not minded it in the least, as if Djimara might stand at the other end of the world and he wouldn't be troubled in the slightest measure.
But Djimara wasn't at the other end of the world. It was only on the other side of the forest of Liree, and at last the smudge of darkness in the distance began to take on the shape of trees.
They made camp at the edge of the woods, when night fell, and laid themselves a small fire. Cord knew it was only wise, that they shouldn't press on into the forest in the dark, but oh, he hated to stop, now that they had crossed the plains—the longest part of their journey, and the dullest.
Two days' discontentment, kept at a slow simmer, and Cord couldn't hold his tongue any longer; he allowed himself to mutter angrily under his breath, contenting himself with a blackly bitter tone and trying not to listen to his own words.
"—so glad we're stopping, because I was getting so tired and it doesn't matter to me at all if it takes the entire rest of my life to get to Djimara, that's just fine—"
He looked up from his pack, just to see, and of course the blind man was listening to him. Sitting quietly, with his legs folded and his flute across his lap, head tilted and eyes fixed on nothing, expression untroubled in the dim firelight.
"Why were you cursed by the spider queen?"
"I don't know," Cord snapped, and then he bit his tongue and sighed. Damned curse.
And of course the blind man wasn't asking because he expected to hear an answer; he knew perfectly well that nothing Cord could tell him would be true. No—he was asking to make the lie clear. To make Cord consider the truth, even if it must remain unsaid. And the truth was—
The truth was, the spider queen had asked him why he traveled with the blind man, and he had felt his heart begin to pound. It hadn't been a lie, exactly, the things he had told the spider queen; but it hadn't been the whole truth, either. Which Cord might have been able to keep on ignoring, if the spider queen hadn't cursed him for it.
The blind man had never asked Cord that question, and Cord was grateful for it. If others asked, he could tell them he had more to learn, that the blind man was his teacher—but if the blind man asked, well. Surely that would mean he thought Cord had nothing left to learn from him; surely then Cord would have to think of something else to say.
Something else that could be said. Because it had never troubled Cord, in and of itself, that he found he admired the long clean lines of the blind man's limbs, his whipcord strength, the flash of that smile. It was only—
Cord closed his eyes and shook his head, and thought with chagrin of the man in the oil-pot. That terrible thing! Cord had broken his vow of chastity, he still had more to learn; of course he thought too much of the blind man. Of course he went too often, in his mind, to the moment when the blind man had greeted him with such jubilance, when they had embraced—when, for a moment, he had had the blind man within the circle of his arms, and had been content.
But it was utter foolishness, surely, to even wonder whether the blind man might think too much of him. The blind man wanted for nothing, needed nothing—desired nothing. Whatever helpless desperation Cord felt to be near the blind man, to travel with him always, to stay by his side, it seemed impossible that the blind man should feel it in return. And to go to him and speak of such a thing! Impossible.
It wasn't that he feared the blind man would be angry. Far from it—when was the blind man ever angry? He would listen, as he always did; listen and then laugh, perhaps, at this foolish thing Cord had said to him, and then think no more on the matter. Turn it into some sort of lesson, or explain to Cord gently that this was another thing that must be set aside, like ego or haste or discomfort—
People were born to love. The blind man hadn't disagreed, when Cord had said it. But to try too hard to possess what you loved—that was not a mistake Cord would make again.
Cord shook off the thought with an effort, and opened his eyes again; and the blind man was still sitting there, listening, waiting.
"Come here," said the blind man.
Cord tensed. But he could still ask, he remembered. Questions were safe. "What for?"
"Come here and lie down in the grass," said the blind man, and Cord stared at him, flushed with sudden uncertain heat, until he added, "We shall look at the stars."
Of course. It was half the sting of embarrassment, the shame of his own unruly thoughts, that made Cord's tone sharp when he said, "Oh, for—and you'll see them so clearly! What sort of lesson is this?"
The blind man smiled. "No lesson at all," he said. "The sky is clear tonight. I cannot see them; that does not make them less beautiful."
Of course. For a moment, Cord felt frustration boil up so sharply it nearly overflowed; and then all at once something tipped inside him and he laughed instead, shaking his head, feeling a tension that had been strung tight through his shoulders start to ease.
"Come here," the blind man said again, "and lie down," and Cord left his things where they were and rounded the little firepit, and sat down beside the blind man. The blind man set the flute aside and lay back, and Cord did likewise; and together they faced the stars.
The sky was vast and black, stretching out endless, glittering—and there was no moon tonight, which only served to make the stars gleam brighter. There was a faint wind, Cord realized; he had not felt it earlier, but he could hear it now, rustling and sighing through the tall grasses.
And Cord lay there with his shoulder pressed to the blind man's, and thought suddenly that really, he'd hardly been cursed at all, in the greater scheme of things.
Their pace couldn't help but slow a little in the forest of Liree. The ground wasn't as even as it had been out on the plains, with slopes and ridges and gladed valleys, and they had to pick their way more carefully between the trees.
It didn't trouble Cord as much as he might have expected. They were closer to the mountains, the great peak of Djimara visible now and then through the leaves, and perhaps that had helped the worst of his frustration to settle.
But he thought it might also have had to do with lying in the dark beside the blind man, and thinking of his questions.
The blind man wouldn't have gone to the spider queen, and if he had he wouldn't have lied. But setting these things aside, if he had one way or another been cursed—what would he have done?
Cord had laughed to himself over the idea for a little while. The blind man so liked to speak in riddles; would Cord even have been able to tell he had been cursed? He liked to ask questions, to say a thing and then its opposite and then make Cord puzzle out which held true meaning. It wouldn't have vexed him, Cord thought. He'd probably have thought it was funny, or found some way to make use of it, to lead Cord to some greater understanding.
He already had found a way to make use of it, here and there, so deftly showing Cord the lies he wished to tell himself. I didn't lie to her. I don't know why she cursed me. I hope you never make me carry your cloak again. Speaking the lie pointed to the truth; like light and shadow, sea and land, one defined the other's edges, a fundamental balance. And—
And perhaps Cord might make use of it, too.
He turned the thought over as they walked. There were still things he couldn't bear to say to the blind man, curse or no curse, but—but those were not the only words he'd left unspoken.
He considered this and walked. And when at last the blind man came to a stop at a spring, that they might refill their water-skins, Cord crouched down at the water's edge and dipped his hand in and said, "I loved my life."
The blind man tilted his head and raised an eyebrow, and said nothing.
"Before I met you," Cord added. "I was very happy, then. I had purpose, I understood myself. I was fulfilled. I had all I needed, and wanted for nothing, and I was content." He looked down at the water, lowered his skin to it, and watched the shards of his reflection scatter among the ripples. "You have—you have made my world so much smaller, you have made me so much less than I was. When you handed me that flute and danced to my music, I wanted to break it over your head, to show you exactly how little it meant to me."
And that was—that was almost too much, but Cord caught himself in time. He shut his mouth, forced his aching throat to swallow down whatever words might have tried to escape next, and pressed his water-skin into the pool with such single-minded focus it was as though he meant to drown it.
He waited; but the blind man said nothing. Cord made himself breathe slowly, drew his skin from the water and capped it again, and only then let himself look up. And the blind man was still kneeling there, head cocked, silent.
"Are you even listening to me?" Cord demanded, when he could bear it no longer.
"Of course," the blind man said gently. "I have always been listening, Cord. It is you who chooses what I hear—who chooses when to speak."
Cord looked away. "I'd have said that any time," he admitted, "and I intend to say it again."
"Ah," the blind man murmured. "Well, in that case, perhaps I owe the spider queen a gift."
Cord startled and looked back over—and the blind man was smiling.
"But first, the sacred pool of Djimara," the blind man added, and levered himself to his feet, humming.
Liree gave way gradually to the foothills, the mountain called Djimara rearing up before them into the sky. There was no path that Cord could see, but of course the blind man was unerring, and together they wended their way along until the blind man slowed and said, "Ah, yes, here we are."
Cord blinked. There was nothing there—no spring, no pool. "Where?"
"A little further," the blind man allowed, and then reached out and took Cord by the wrist, drew his hand up to the level of his shoulders. And—how strange. The faintest breeze, against his fingertips, except it was warm like a breath, like—
Like the touch of the blind man's hand. Cord felt a shiver climb his arm, and drew it from the blind man's grip before the blind man could feel it.
"What is it?"
The blind man grinned. "Why ask, when you will so soon see for yourself?"
And when they had climbed a small slope and rounded the next outcropping, Cord could see what he meant. It was just as he'd said, a spring and a pool overflowing from it—a series of pools, in truth, but one was much larger than the rest. But Cord hadn't imagined the warmth in the air: the water was steaming. If the blind man had told him as much, he'd hardly have believed it, and yet it was so.
Cord stepped to the edge of the largest pool and lowered his hand to it. Even as he felt the warmth of the air increase, felt the steam twine through his knuckles, some part of him was still sure the water simply must be cold; but it was hot as blood, as life itself. He wiggled his fingers beneath the surface, marveling, and then he heard a sound and turned.
The blind man had set down the flute, his cloak, and had stripped himself bare to the waist.
Cord looked away and managed to drag in a breath, feeling a bright sharp heat like lightning dart down his spine.
"Come on, then," the blind man said behind him, blithe. "You're the one who's cursed," and he stepped up beside Cord and then into the pool, with a low hum of pleasure at the heat of the water. The steam was already settling on him, beading into droplets along his face, his throat, his bare shoulders—
Cord jerked his gaze away and stood, let his vest slide down his arms and put it safely on dry ground. His bag, too, and his water-skin.
And then there was nothing left to do but get into the water with the blind man.
The sensation was briefly distracting; Cord had bathed in warm water, but rarely, and never as warm as this. Fresh, too, for the pool overflowed with it—there was a gentle but distinct current as the water flowed around them and away, off into the series of lesser pools and little tumbling waterfalls that stretched down the slope below. The blind man had said it was magical, and Cord could easily believe it; it seemed to draw aches and tension with it as it went, and carried them off into the distance.
"There, that's better," said the blind man with a grin, and he waded over, unhesitating, until they were standing there facing one another, up to their waists, veiled with steam. And then—
Then nothing happened.
Cord frowned a little. He had thought perhaps there would be a flash of light, or some other sort of sign. Or maybe the blind man would say something, some incantation addressed to the water, and Cord would feel its magic pass over him and know.
"What else must I do?"
The blind man's mouth quirked, amused. He lifted one hand, the magical water of the spring streaming from his fingers, and—poked Cord in the forehead.
"Stop lying," he said.
Cord stared at him. As if he thought Cord had been doing it on purpose all this time—but no, surely he knew better. He'd known about the spider queen, about the rules that governed her curses. So—so perhaps, Cord thought slowly, what he truly meant was the lie that had started all this, the lie Cord had told to the spider queen. The lie he hadn't breathed a word of to the blind man, hadn't mentioned again since the curse had been cast.
And yet it was a lie he was always telling, every moment. Even now, as he stood here in this pool, with the blind man well inside arm's reach, bare and strong and warm—Cord didn't touch him, stood with his hands at his sides as though there were nothing else he wished to do with them, and that too was a lie—
"Cord," the blind man said quietly, and lowered his hand. Not far: only to Cord's face, from his forehead; to his cheek, and then the angle of his jaw. "What are you afraid of? What here will hurt you? There is only me, and the water, and the stone. What are you afraid of? Tell the truth."
Cord closed his eyes. "I'm not afraid," he heard himself say, unsteady, and then he reached out without looking, caught the blind man's face in his hands, and drew him in close and kissed him.
And this, this was a flash of light, a sign, the feeling of deep magic awakened. Cord had looked so many times at the blind man's mouth, at the fine smiling lines at the corners of those unseeing eyes, the narrow strong hands, the brief shadowed stroke of a collarbone—and now they were here at the tips of his fingers, caught in his arms.
He couldn't see, couldn't think; he was breathless, and broke away for air, and only then realized he had smoothed his hands down the blind man's throat, his shoulders, and was gripping him tight around the waist. As if the blind man might slide through too loose a grip, like sand; as if Cord had any hope of stopping him from doing so, if he wished to.
But the blind man only smiled at him. He smiled and ran his thumb along the curve of Cord's lip, and then murmured fondly, "Liar," and kissed Cord again.