Nine years was long enough to get Aaron Mornett a very long way from home, in body and in mind.
The first year was the worst. The court sentenced him to penal labour, building roads through the bogs of Uaine. He wasn’t accustomed to such work, and the men around him knew who he was and what he’d been sentenced for -- so while the blisters on his hands broke and bled, the other convicts mocked him incessantly as the “clever fellow” who’d gotten himself in trouble over a bit of clay. He’d never been physically courageous, and in hindsight, he wasn’t then, either. It wasn’t courage that drove him into those fights. It was sheer, helpless, self-loathing fury.
That same fury drove him to sea. When his sentence was up -- lengthened a little on account of the fights -- his one thought was to get out of Scirland, away from anyone who knew him. But he had no money, and no one who would lend him any, so his only recourse was to sign on with the merchant marine. He had no experience at sea, and what little he knew of it came from conversations with Audrey; his first position was, he later realized, as menial as it was possible to get. But that was fine. It took him away from Scirland, into a world where people had never heard the name of Aaron Mornett, nor had any reason to care if they did.
A little over four years of that, criss-crossing the seas of the world. He’d grown a beard during his year of labour, and kept it now, because it made him feel less like himself. His face burned and peeled and grew weathered. His gift for languages proved useful, not for scholarship, but for the practical purpose of conversing with people in different ports. And when he was finally put off the ship, he was in Yelang.
He spoke certain dialects of Yelangese very well. Half the scholarship on modern Draconean was written in them, after all, and some of the scholarship on the ancient form, too. Which was a thing he’d tried not to think about for nearly four years . . . but Audrey’s words to him in his jail cell were still there, buried under his skin, burning like slow embers. I hope you learn to live with the Draconeans.
There were no Draconeans on the coast. It would take generations before they could endure that environment -- generations of dangerous mutations, failed hatchings, ill health and death. He still didn’t understand why they would risk it.
But there was word of a new project: a settlement soon to be constructed in the high plateau of Khavtlai. The Draconeans had already built one in Tser-nga, in what passed for the lowlands of that country. Their population was growing, and step by step, they were forming agreements to create small enclaves in friendly countries, so that in time they would have offspring who could travel the world in safety.
He made his way south.
It wasn’t all that hard to get by without papers, not when one was nothing more than an itinerant labourer. By then his hands were tough, his shoulders strong, his endurance ten times what it had been before. With his name given as Geoffrey Foss and his speech returned to the Yarstow accents he’d worked so hard to scrub away in his youth, there was nothing to connect him with Aaron Mornett, the man who had tried to forge a cruel ending to the ancient Draconean epic.
The wind in Khavtlai was ceaseless like the wind at sea, but full of grit. He didn’t once feel clean during the six months he spent building round Draconean-style houses there. Not in body, and not in mind -- because what had seemed like a reasonable idea, if not a good one, became much less so the moment he met his second Draconean. A female, of course; he knew that eighty percent of them were female. She had no reason to know him. But he kept expecting her to point dramatically at him and bare her teeth, denouncing him as her people’s enemy. And that lay atop his own discomfort, the wariness and the guilt and the simple mammalian unease of being around a very large predator. Discomfort that kept being shoved into his face, because despite his intention of pretending he only spoke a few words of modern Draconean, he slipped up repeatedly, and got a reputation for being the best among the construction crew with their tongue. The Draconeans spoke some outside languages, too, but that didn’t stop him from being the go-to interpreter when one was needed.
And it didn’t stop the female -- Mazte -- from including him among the handful of labourers offered a job doing some additional work within the Sanctuary itself.
At that point he couldn’t say whether it was curiosity, pride, or both that drove him to accept.
So then it was back to building roads, only this time in the world’s highest mountains, rather than the bogs of Uaine. The Draconeans were capable of that work themselves, of course; they’d brought in human labourers as a diplomatic move, to give those men a view inside the high walls of their refuge -- and also, he realized, to give their own people more familiarity with humans. He’d known, intellectually, that many of them saw humans as the terrifying rebels of the ancient past, slaughtering their unhatched children, then hunting them to the ends of the earth. It was part of why he’d doubted there was any possibility of peace with them.
But it was one thing to know, and another thing to experience it firsthand -- to see one of the brothers who was caretaker for a young clutch draw back an inquisitive hatchling, the way a human mother might draw back her child from a large mastiff not held on a leash.
There was no hostility there. Only fear.
After that, he couldn’t really pinpoint when he’d made certain decisions. He wasn’t entirely certain he had. Things just sort of . . . happened, one after the other, not quickly, simply as the occasion arose. Some of those things led to him spending the winter inside the Sanctuary. Then there was another winter, and he was still there. Not building roads anymore, but one of a small number of humans now living there, and one of the few who didn’t have some official role as an ambassador from a human country. And somewhere along the line, the self-negating impulse faded -- the one that had made him go to sea where he couldn’t amass a library or keep up with the latest scholarly journals.
Not that he had a library here, not of the sort he would previously have considered to deserve the name. And certainly there were no scholarly journals in it. But somewhere along the line, he began to think again.
To think -- and to talk to the brothers who kept the wisdom of the Draconeans.
They had libraries. Of their own literature, carved stone for the important things, characters painted on yak hides for the ephemeral ones. But also books from the outside world, in Yelangese, in Scirling, in Akhian, in a motley assortment of human languages.
Including, of course, several editions of the ancient epic now published under the title Turning Darkness Into Light.
He hadn’t read Audrey’s translation before. The original plan had been to savor it after publication, to see where his thoughts and Audrey’s ran along similar lines. By the time it actually saw print, though, he was a convict in Uaine, and the thought of it had been too painful. Even now it wasn’t precisely comfortable. He spent two months not looking at that shelf, the neatly-bound volumes throbbing in his peripheral vision. In the end he read them as much to put a stop to that distraction as anything else.
The edition he picked up was scholarly, probably the most expensive one out there. Each pair of pages reproduced an image of the Draconean script, then gave a transliteration of the glyphs, followed by the Scirling translation, followed by dense footnotes. The text was at once intimately familiar and half-forgotten, and he found, as he read, that instead he was looking for places where he would have translated something differently from Audrey and Kudshayn. Not due to an argumentative impulse, but simple curiosity.
It wasn’t until the next day that he noticed he’d thought of it as the work of Audrey and Kudshayn, without a single ripple in his mind.
The brother who owned that copy, Neshim, was studying the Downfall. Or rather what he called the Long Fall -- because while people thought of the collapse of Anevrai civilization as a singular event, and parts of it had happened very rapidly, the dwindling of their species and the transformation of the world to one where Draconeans were thought of as ancient myth had been a much slower process. Neshim couldn’t travel to the lands where archaeological remnants shed light on that period, but he was amassing as many resources as he could on the topic, aided by funds from a charitable group in Akhia.
The conversations with him weren’t really a decision, either. But Neshim’s new human friend had greater familiarity with some of the relevant languages than he himself did. And so, gradually, in the remotest inhabited corner of the world and far from everything he had once known, Aaron Mornett returned to scholarship.
Then one day he walked through a rainstorm to Neshim’s house, shook off the worst of the water in the outer chamber, and came inside to discover someone else there. Back to the door, but the fire outlined a fluff of dark hair he recognized with a force that drove all the air from him.
“Geoff!” Neshim had seen him; there was no way to leave gracefully. He almost fled anyway, and grace be damned, but his legs wouldn’t move. And then Audrey Camherst turned to look.
There was a heartbeat in which he hoped she wouldn’t recognize him. It had been -- eight years? No, nine. He was bearded and weathered and the man she’d known had no reason to be in the Sanctuary of Wings. When she walked out of his jail cell he’d hoped, with more than a bit of spiteful self-pity, that he would haunt her thoughts, that she would secretly keep tabs on his movements and his doings, all the while pretending not to care. With the passage of time, that had changed. He hoped she truly had put him from her mind and gone on to do many things without a single thought of him.
Judging by the gut-dropping shock he saw in the firelit curve of her face, that part was true. But not so true that she didn’t know him, even with the beard, even in the Sanctuary of Wings.
Neshim was burbling along happily, something about this being the human he’d mentioned. He wasn’t the best at reading human body language, and several moments passed before he trailed off uncertainly. “Is something wrong?”
Audrey recovered her tongue first. “No, not at all. I’d forgotten, until I saw him, that Mr. Foss and I knew one another. A long time ago. In Scirland. Neshim, would you . . . would you give us a moment?” When Neshim nodded and didn’t move, she prompted, “Alone?”
Aaron could tell Neshim was curious and somewhat confused, but he complied. Then it was just the two of them in a smoky Draconean house. It took all Aaron’s coordination and will to make himself walk around Audrey and sit on a yak-hide cushion without looking like a badly-manipulated marionette.
Pleasantries were stupid, but the alternatives were even stupider. “Miss Camherst. You’re looking well.” He didn’t know if she’d married -- but he knew better than to call her Audrey.
Her jaw worked silently for a heartbeat or two. “And you’re looking . . . nothing like yourself. ‘Geoffrey Foss’?”
“It’s my middle name,” he said, awkwardly. “And my mother’s maiden name.”
“You’ve been lying to these people.”
“Not on purpose.” He cringed at the way his Yarstow accent drew out the first vowel of purpose, but at this point, speaking that way was ingrained habit. He didn’t think he could regain his more cultured accent without sounding like a bad actor in a play.
Audrey’s mouth hardened. “You tripped and fell on a false identity?”
“I didn’t think anyone would let Aaron Mornett build houses for Draconeans in Khavtlai. But I also didn’t expect to wind up here. Once that happened . . . there was no good point along the way to say, by the way, I’m the bastard who tried to ruin your past and your future.”
Silence descended again. The part of his mind that fancied itself a wit mused that if the events in Falchester had been his Downfall, then this drawn-out awkwardness was his Long Fall.
He expected Audrey to say he should have told them anyway, timing be damned. She would be right to do it. But instead she said, “You simply vanished. I assumed that meant . . . I don’t know where I thought you’d gone. Not here, certainly. This is the last place I would have guessed.” A touch of curiosity brightened her voice. “How on earth did it happen?”
Telling the story didn’t take long at all. Whole years passed by in a sentence. Why would she want details? They didn’t matter to anything in particular. Uaine, the sea, Yelang, Khavtlai. The Sanctuary.
“And now,” she said, “you’re working with Neshim.”
“Helping him. A little. I . . .” He trailed off, helplessly. “I don’t know what else to do with myself. I don’t love the sea the way you do; I’ve got no desire to return there. The only skills I have are sailor, construction worker, and philologist. They don’t need a lot of things built here.”
She’d mastered her own expression by now, and regarded him impassively across the low fire. Audrey looked utterly out of place here, her hair neatly trimmed, her clothing neatly tailored. She took more care with her appearance now than she used to, and there was a solidity to her gaze that hadn’t been there before. There was a Draconean poem -- a modern one -- that used trees as a metaphor, comparing one that grew straight and tall to one bent and turned by the wind. It wasn’t hard to decide which of them was which.
“So you’ve been here for years,” Audrey said. “I had no idea. I knew there were humans here, but there are more than I realized -- Grandmama still can’t believe how many.”
Lady Trent had come to the Sanctuary the previous year. He’d successfully avoided her, because in that instance he’d known she was coming. “If it would be better, I’ll leave.”
“Who would benefit from that?”
More silence. He wished desperately that he had never walked into Neshim’s house today. He’d dreamt, more than once, of how he might encounter Audrey Camherst again. None of them had looked like this.
Audrey let out a slow breath. “Tell me. After all this time here -- what answer would you give to your own question?”
She didn’t specify which question, and she didn’t have to. It was proof, perhaps, that she hadn’t entirely forgotten about him . . . and proof, too, that their minds hadn’t diverged so completely as all that. The question he’d asked her in that cell in Falchester, before she walked away for what seemed like forever.
Whether peace was possible, between humans and Draconeans.
He said, “I think there will be a war someday. Just like I think there will be a war someday between Scirland and Thiessin, or Yelang and Vidwatha. We’ve done it before, and will again. It seems to be human nature, and probably Draconean as well.” Their history had internal conflicts. The most recent had been a kind of clan war that nearly decimated the Sanctuary. “But . . . in between wars, there are stretches of peace. We’ve got one right now, where the Draconeans are concerned. I hope it lasts as long as it can.”
It wasn’t the rousing endorsement of interspecies harmony he assumed she was looking for. Her expression, though, was thoughtful rather than dismissive. “I think you’re right. The longer the peace lasts, the better.”
Not just because peace was better than war. Because right now, human beings had the military capacity to exterminate the Draconeans entirely if things turned hostile. The Sanctuary needed a larger population, needed enclaves in many parts of the world, so they wouldn’t be completely vulnerable to human aggression. So that -- when war came -- it might just be a conflict of one nation against another, as human nations conflicted with each other.
Audrey folded her hands and looked down at them. “I won’t tell anyone you’re Aaron Mornett. Because -- I don’t think it’s really a lie to call yourself Geoffrey Foss. Aaron Mornett wouldn’t be sitting here, looking like that, telling me those things.”
“Yes, he would,” Aaron said, before he could think.
The firelight reflected in her gaze as she studied him, unblinking. “Fair enough. But I still won’t tell anyone.”
When she rose to call Neshim back in, a sudden thought came to him. One he should have had years ago . . . but he’d been doing his best not to think about any of that. “Miss Camherst. Do you know who bought my books?” All his possessions had been auctioned off before his trial, to pay his legal fees.
Audrey’s brow furrowed. “Not off the top of my head. Why? You’d like them back?”
He stood, then regretted it, because now it meant he couldn’t just rest his hands on his knees. He wound up locking them behind his back. “Mrs. Kefford damaged the Darkness Tablet on purpose, to hide the fact that it didn’t line up with the beginning of the first tablet I forged. And she did the same thing to the Imalkit Tablet, so it wouldn’t seem suspicious that only one was badly eroded.”
She hadn’t changed in some fundamental respects. The anger in her shoulders was as fresh as it would have been nine years ago -- but she didn’t look surprised. Of course she’d wondered.
“I made copies of both of them before she did that,” he said, trying not to remember the sound of the chisel on priceless clay. “And tucked the papers into my copy of Birds of Scirland, in case she took it into her head to search for any such thing. So far as I know, they were still there when my books went to auction.” He should have hidden them in the Colloquium library, with the real tablets.
Audrey’s mouth softened in wonder and hope. Those papers, if they survived, held text that might not exist anywhere else in the world. “I’ll try to find out. If I can locate them . . . what do you want me to do?”
He shrugged stiffly, hands still behind his back. “My possessions were all sold. Which includes my papers. But I imagine the current owner, if he or she hasn’t thrown them away, would be happy to let you have them.”
“Possibly for a modest price,” she said dryly. The gibe wasn’t directed at him; she was thinking of the fad for all things Draconean that had swept Scirland prior to the congress. Aaron wanted to offer to pay for them, if the current owner proved greedy, but he had nothing to give. The Sanctuary didn’t mint its own currency yet; for outside trade, they used a mixture of currencies from neighboring countries. The elders were still debating whether to officially adopt one of those for their own, or to attempt their own monetary system. Either way, within the Sanctuary itself, life still proceeded mostly without money. All Aaron had was a scattering of coins from around Dajin, and they didn’t add up to much.
Audrey wasn’t looking for it anyway; she already planning. “I can send a letter by the next caeliger. Simeon will be able to find out, I’m sure.” Then her gaze refocused on him. “Thank you, Aaron.”
Not “Mr. Mornett,” nor “Mr. Foss.” It was a small gift, the use of his name. And for the first time in nine years, he felt like himself.
Better than that, actually. Like he might someday become the version of himself she’d once thought him to be.
After that he got letters from her, and wrote some in return. Their correspondence was sporadic, because even now, the post between the Sanctuary and Scirland was unreliable -- and sometimes Audrey wasn’t in Scirland at all. He would only discover she’d gone to Akhia or Coyahuac when he got a letter from those countries, one that didn’t reference his last missive because it was still waiting for her in Falchester. He didn’t mind.
More than a year later, when the spring thaw opened the Sanctuary to the outside world again, he got a parcel instead.
Inside was a new edition of Turning Darkness Into Light -- the scholarly version again. The frontispiece trumpeted, UPDATED WITH RECENTLY-DISCOVERED MATERIAL. Below that were the translators’ names, Audrey Camherst, F.P.C., and Kudshayn, son of Ahheke, daughter of Itzam, F.P.C. And below that, in Audrey’s familiar scrawl, Thank you.
Tears unexpectedly blurred his vision. So much so that he almost missed what was printed below Audrey’s note, in smaller type:
With assistance from Cora Fitzarthur and Aaron Mornett.
Then he couldn’t read at all, because the book had dissolved into a watery smear. He set it down with blind care, so he wouldn’t drip on it, and promised himself he’d read the new parts tomorrow.