Chapter Twenty-One: A Turn in the Night

I felt a gathering unease, which I assumed to be born of the interruption in my customary ways, so I excused myself to work out with my other Masters of the Wall for the coming morning, arranging that Prince Evandir might keep company with his countrymen at a hosting held in the City by the Burgmasters. I also felt that I had spent too long with this Prince and his questions. I grew too at ease with him, so when he said he might like to join us in our next morning’s exercises, I told him it was not our custom.

A sound broke my sleep, a small undefined whisper that had me up and on my feet before I knew what I did. I took my sword and sidled to the door, lifting the oiled latch and easing it open so that I could see into the hall. A scuttle, a slipping of bare feet….

I flung myself into the hall, and struck under the ribs of the fleeing figure, jerking the blade loose as I yanked on his left wrist, and stabbed again straight up under his jaw. No time for any sound but the wheeze and gurgle of blood. He caught me with one last flail of his knife, and the hot sear of the blade ran across my upper arm. My haste and anger had made me careless as a neophyte. A second invader came at me backwards, and crumpled at my feet, the Prince’s sword still stuck between his ribs.

The Prince himself, naked save for his blood, went down to his knees in the middle of his room, straining to stay upright, his mouth snarling at me as if he thought I had come to join his assailants, then he slumped, his arm outstretched, fingers still grasping after his sword. I stared down in the gloom at his face as he rolled his head in silent extremity back and forth, and I saw how they had cut him, from one ear down, trying for the severance of carotid and jugular. That must have been when he stabbed back and the assassin missed her mark. They’d nicked both great vessels. Blood pulsed out eagerly, in quick spurts. There was enough blood that I could not tell if this was the only wound.

I did not stop to think these things. I saw my death in his face and his widely angry eyes as I slapped both hands to his throat, the hot blood covering my fingers in less time than a thought, drenching my forearms. No time even for incantation, only for this desperate try, and I heard again my protest to Thane Gehir when I had tried to make him pause in his healing. “They will kill you,” I had said. “It is what I was made for,” he had replied. And I had always been a killer.

#

“So what am I to do with her?”

Mell’s voice, speaking very quietly in the dark. I heard Prince Evandir, sounding thickly hoarse.

“Did what I say help?”

“Oh you saved her for this moment,” Mell answered him. “I should be grateful to you, Enemy, I suppose. But we have only a little time, and how can I say anything of what is to come, to you, who are an agent of King Saahr? I know as well as Ti that you and your company show no sign of giving up your ambitions against this kingdom. Where this incident fits in the great pattern, only time will truly expose. Circles inside of circles.”

“Then can you tell me about her past? Why, when I interfered and said the truth that your Corpsmaster had saved me but barely, did you stop further discussion? Who are the people wishing to hide the fact that an assassination attempt came against the guest of your own Corpsmaster? Aquitan says there is nothing but a rumor that I am ill, in the streets of your city. And who was the third assailant who ran first from the scene when I awoke too fast for convenience?” He coughed a little, painfully and stopped asking questions.

“If the attack became public knowledge the Corpsmaster would be tried for it and also, for the healing she performed upon you. They would Question her for truth. There are some in the City who do not want this to happen; you do not expect me to give you names and I wouldn’t if you did. My assumption is that someone wanted to discredit her and you were convenient to them. But you may say I am centered so much on my ‘little world’ that I miss your great importance and this was nothing more than what it seemed, a creditable attempt upon your life. Maybe you play some pivotal part you have hidden from us all.

“And when I find the third assassin I hope it is not one of my training or I will surely quit this profession for the sake of my own incompetence.”

Prince Evandir did not reply for a long time. Mell did not seem to care. She remained quiet in the dark, and I slept.

#

In this sleep I remembered being a boy. A boy named Evandir. I had been asking my tutor history questions because I wanted to know what had happened after Geeden, King of Saahr had died, if the new King had ever found out who had committed that murder; and he had only said, “Prince, that is not material for which you are responsible.” So I went into my uncle’s library.

I had gone from text to footnote, to index to footnote, to suggestion and allegation, and from the pile of books I had laid out first on the desk, to the floor where I could do so more comfortably. Then I had heard some noise and looked up at my uncle’s pocked face, as he stared down, clearly annoyed at me. I had failed him again, but exactly how? Would this end in another beating, repeated if I flinched?

“Evandir,” he said coldly. “It is your right to use these rooms, but if you are late again for your fencing lesson and I hear of it, you shall pay a suitable price. Believe me that you would regret it. You are six years old, old enough to understand that your responsibilities cannot be put aside for the convenience of your curiosity.

“No, no,” he snapped as I sprang to obey. “Picking up your litter is not your responsibility. You are a fighting man, not a house servant.”

#

I, Ti of the Wall, knew this was not a dream but a living memory, not mine, but no less real, even though I also understood I still slept. A golden morning, a hot light, all the air suffused with brilliance, with the black of pines holding it back. At my feet the massive bulk of the dead bear, mahogany fur ruffling in the breeze and a heavy scent of its blood and death on me. One of the blind bears of the North who roamed without stay the forests of the King of Saahr; this one dead by my hand alone in the last hours of the night. I bore his wounds, his bruises, but I had never been so sorry to have passed any test. All that savagery of life passed into an inert mass of carrion, and by my doing. What choice had either of us, in the end? One of us had to kill, and the other to die.

#

I slept on, and this time I could not tell if I were Ti of the Wall or Evandir of the Kingdom of Saahr. There were images, brilliant and real, down to the sensation of sun on my skin, and the frigid water of a mountain rainstorm with the frightful lightening flashing across rigid faces filled with fear. When I finally awoke I lay still, prey to confusion and doubt. My left arm throbbed from the assassin’s cut.

“And you told me you were a killer,” Prince Evandir said from his bed, looking down to where I lay on the floor, piled in old blankets. He laughed but like a man who is very tired, and heartsore, so that it came out hoarse and short.

I said nothing, looking up at his face, cheeks with the straggled beard dark with sweat, a face more familiar than any other to me even in its pallor of exhaustion. His expression sobered then, and he rolled back onto his bed with a gesture of impatience.

“You have done worse than killed me,” he said in a voice nearly a whisper. “We will meet in your Arena and I will raise sword against you, and so you have done worse to me than sleep in my bed.”

With a deceptive casualness he then remarked,

“Master Mell collects insects. She takes her brushes and her fine pens and draws exquisite renderings on vellum using a magnifying glass in a holder that she discovered deep in the catacombs of the Fortress. She stoops as intent as a warrior sharpening her spear. This I have from your mind, Master Ti. I have your memory.

“There are rooms smelling like tea, like a storehouse of teas and herbs collected together over time immeasurable. That is where you spend your leisure, Ti of the Wall, in the library among the shelves stacked with old frail paper, leaves of information shattering over time in sad disuse. So many languages; how could you have learned as many as you have? That manuscript you translated in the spring with the corners illuminated with cochineal and gold, I have never put hand on that one before. I can see it now before my eyes as though these eyes of mine were the eyes that saw it. You have even read so much of Ash Jiminez of Tarberrn (of which our royal library only holds an incomplete copy,) that his words echo in your mind. You will have to take me there; no one will mind but the Academics, and you outrank them and they love you. Somber remote smiles and dignified bows cannot deceive nor hide the indulgence in their nearsighted eyes. There’s no better place I’d ask to visit in all your City than your library. If we had time.”

“You aren’t supposed to remember. No one else does afterwards, except for me.” I could hardly believe what he implied.

“Are you sure? It isn’t all the time, thank the Gods, but when it happens and I see a piece of your past, it is as real as any memory of mine own. Why do you think the people of the City shun and love you? Is it a reflection of some impress you have made upon them when you healed them, so deep that they cannot shake it? And is this thing — this connection, far worse between you and me than it has been for the others you healed?”

“But why would it be worse?”

He turned his terribly familiar face to give me one long level look. This time he said nothing before he went back to staring at the ceiling.

“Did you think,” and he swallowed hard for I saw his Adam’s apple bob in his new-scarred throat, “did you ever suspect that now I could pick through your memories for useful fragments to feed my war against you? If I were willing to drown in what you have left in my mind I could do this. Did you have any idea what you were about when you did this thing to me?”

“No,” I said. “You aren’t supposed to remember me nor I you. I should ask Mell to slit your throat where you lie and mine, and so we will both be done. She is far more competent than your assailants were.”

“And your Thane Gehir, I was so certain he was your lover, but now I find that’s no protection either. Puppy love, calf-worship; that’s no help to me. How much easier if you loved him.”

“You probably have a fever,” I said. “You are babbling.”

“No,” he answered. “I’m not two people in one skin but I am close to being one and a third and I am more fearful than I have ever been in a life where I have never been afraid to admit it. And you of all people don’t even want to hear what I am telling you. Go back to sleep, Ti of the Wall, Ti of Thane Gehir. You are better company that way.”

So, being tired still, I did.

#

“Corpsmaster Ti, you trouble me,” Mell said in the darkness. “You are almost as much trouble to me as a man. I think I should retire and leave my worries behind.”

“You need to marry Quillson,” I told her. “whether or not you retire to the post of one of our Academics of the Wall. You have made Quillson wait and wait, and I want to dance at your wedding before I am so old I need crutches.”

“How can I back out on this coming battle?” Mell asked me. “Haven’t we seen this one approaching for a long time? Together?”

“You can step away from the coming battle,” I said. “You owe a loyalty to your betrothed.”

“Not so,” Mell said. “I’ve made no oath to him as yet. He understands me, my friend. And I will not surrender my sword to the King until the war with Saahr is won.”

“That is hardly polite,” Prince Evandir said dryly from the bed.

Mell made a precise and very offensive comment which made him laugh enormously.

“Tomorrow you are both to be upset out of your beds and must remember, it is food poisoning that overset you two. Perhaps some fish we had in the Inner Lands. I have kept you hidden here as long as I dare. One day’s grace is all that you could have.”

“Tomorrow,” Evandir said, now very sober.

“The week will be up, ” Mell commented, “and we must to war. Against each other.”

She left us then and I thought Evandir had fallen asleep, he was quiet so long. Then he turned in his bed. I heard his big body shift, the sheets sliding, and I sensed that he looked at me.

“Tell me, Ti of the Wall,” he asked. “Do you know what has come to us?”

“I do not want to know,” I said, risking honesty this time, staring at the ceiling.

“Isn’t that a luxury?”

“I think that what you are talking about is a luxury. It was never meant for me. I am a killer, and a good one too. Why muddy the waters?”

“So you keep saying. Well then, Ti of the Wall who does not want to talk about luxuries, I will do my best to kill you when our war begins. Make sure that you do likewise.”

“How could I fail?” I asked him, and heard him make some slight amused sound.

“Sleep well,” he said.

I didn’t.

Posted in: A Stranger's Blood, Blog, free novel, publishing, writing

Leave a Reply