It was almost Ninth when Sorchal ambled along the covered walk at the side of the practice yard, his coat over his shoulder and his shirt untucked. Gair turned from first position and propped his sword point-down in the dust in front of him, leaning on the pommel. This was the third time this week the Elethrainian had let him down.
‘Good afternoon,’ he said dryly.
Grinning, Sorchal swept him a florid bow. ‘Good morrow, sir Knight! Goddess’s blessings to you on this fine morning.’ He staggered as he straightened up, which rather spoiled the effect.
‘Are you still drunk?’
‘Ah, yes, about that.’ This time Sorchal looked genuinely contrite, ducking his head and scrubbing his fingers through his uncombed hair. A shadow of beard on cheeks and chin said he’d been out all night.
Green eyes flashed and the grin returned, then he shrugged, as if that made everything all right. ‘I got . . . sidetracked.’
‘I see.’ Hefting his sword again, Gair squinted along the blade to the point, trying to keep his irritation reined in. ‘What was her name?’
‘Molly, I think. Or it might have been Maisie. Blue eyes and freckles – so wholesome I just wanted to eat her up. So I did.’ Sorchal dropped his coat over the rail and leaned on it. ‘If you ask me, that’s what you need.’
‘You need a woman.’
Gair stared at him. ‘Excuse me?’
‘A woman, to suck some of that intensity out of you.’
Once, a turn of phrase like that would have made his ears burn. Now he felt faintly insulted that anyone – even a rake like Sorchal – could imagine he was done with grieving so quickly.
‘I didn’t ask you,’ he said. ‘It’s too soon.’
The Elethrainian clicked his tongue. ‘Look, I know it’s only been a month—’
‘—but there’s a house in Threepenny Yard, very discreet, with fine feather beds and a good breakfast after.’ He dug a gold Imperial from his pocket and flicked it into the air. ‘Here. A gift from a friend to a friend.’
At the height of its arc, the coin caught the early-morning light and blazed, bright as a fire-eagle’s crown. Squinting against the sky, Gair tracked it as it tumbled towards him.
Twenty-four days, nineteen hours and thirty-some minutes. It wasn’t precise; it didn’t need to be. He no longer counted them as days lost – he had the rest of his life to count those – but as days elapsed until he could exact his revenge. No other measure made sense.
He swept the blade up. Metal chimed on metal and Sorchal had to duck as the coin went spinning over his head to bounce off the wall behind him
‘Bloody hell, these aren’t dockside grunters, you know,’ he grumbled, trudging over the dusty boards to the corner of the walk to retrieve the coin. He rubbed his thumb over the edge where the longsword’s steel had bitten a deep notch in the gold. ‘They’re nice girls, very clean, and I can attest to their talents. There’s a redhead alone could bring a dead man to the salute—’
‘Holy saints, Sorchal!’ Gair stared at him. The girls’ quality or otherwise wasn’t the point. ‘No!’
‘Because money changes hands?’
‘That’s one good reason.’
A slave-trader had left his sigil on the nape of Aysha’s neck: a tattoo of a crescent moon with stars between the horns. Just ink, she’d said, but he’d thought of it like a cattle-brand and loathed the idea of a man marking her as property. That someone kept a stable of women and hired them out by the hour or the night was only a little different.
‘It’s simple economics, my friend. They provide an essential service and charge for it accordingly. What’s the problem with that?’ Sorchal gave a lazy, just-bedded smile. ‘Long live the spirit of enterprise, say I.’
A woman wasn’t what he needed. Not by a mile. Gair flexed his hands on the grip of the longsword, already dark with his sweat from two hours’ practice at the solo forms, and imagined swinging the blade hard at a gaudy silk shirt.
‘No thanks, Sorchal.’
‘Those Knightly principles of yours again,’ the Elethrainian said sourly. ‘You know, you’d be a lot more pleasant to be around if you bent them once in a while.’
Gair ground his teeth. ‘You don’t understand.’
‘Don’t I? And whose fault is that? I’m your friend, Gair – or I thought I was – but you won’t talk to me. I can’t even persuade you to keep me company in my cups.’ The words burst out of him like flood waters breaching a dam. ‘I come down here every day and practice swordplay with you until you could take that great blade and cut the flame from a candlewick, but that’s all you do. You don’t talk, you don’t laugh. You only want to kill.’
Reversing his grip on the longsword, Gair drove the point into the ground. ‘And you think the quickest way to get over a woman is to tumble a new one! I’m not like you, and that’s not what she was to me.’
Sorchal would never understand. He changed girls the way other men changed their shirts, and the funny thing was, they seemed to like it. They ate out of his hand like cage-birds, and fluttered and sighed when he moved on without ever a harsh word spoken. He behaved appallingly, and they loved him for it.
Lips pursed, Sorchal studied him for a long moment. ‘So it would appear,’ he said at last, and sighed. ‘All right. Let me soak up the last of the wine with some breakfast and I’ll meet you back here in half an hour.’
Gair shook his head. ‘It’s not worth fighting if you’re not at your best. Get some sleep.’
‘Tomorrow.’ He jerked the longsword out of the ground and wiped the dirt off the blade on the leg of his whites. ‘Half-Prime, if you can.’
Slinging his coat back over his shoulder, the Elethrainian turned to go. ‘You need another way to spend your time, my friend.’
He walked away. Before he was out of the yard complex he was whistling a jaunty tune, something with the rhythm of a dance to it that said his evening had comprised more than merely drinking and wenching, and for a moment Gair wondered if an hour in the hop-scented fug of the Red Dragon would be such an ordeal. Maybe not – but maybe next week, or the week after. Not today.
Standing still had allowed his muscles to cool; he worked his shoulders to loosen them, tossing the sword from hand to hand as he walked to the midline of the yard and set himself to begin the forms again.
A figure moved in the shadows of the eastern walk. Even shading his eyes he couldn’t make out who it was after the glare of the morning sun, but it had the height and breadth of a man.
‘Now what?’ he muttered, lowering his sword. Louder, he asked, ‘Yes?’
‘Sorchal was only trying to help, you know.’ It was Alderan.
He hadn’t seen much of the Guardian over the past few weeks. A few words in a corridor, a nod from across the refectory. A little distance had suited him, and still did – it was one less distraction from the task at hand.
Gair gripped the earth with his toes and focused on his breathing, slowly bringing the longsword up in salute.
‘Sorchal’s never loved a woman for longer than it took to get inside her bodice,’ he said, directing the words as much to the steel in his hands as to the man at the far end of the yard. ‘He doesn’t understand.’
‘Still no reason to be rude to him.’ Alderan came around to the steps leading down into the yard and sat on the topmost one, leaning his forearms on his knees. ‘What are you doing to yourself, Gair?’
‘Is it not obvious?’
‘You’ve already got the beating of Haral three times out of five. Arlin won’t practise with you any more. Only Sorchal will put up with you, and I’ll be surprised if he continues much longer. You’re running out of friends.’
Balance. Breathe. Feel the tension drain from the muscles, relaxed but ready. ‘Arlin was never a friend of mine.’ And begin.
Step by step, feint becoming lunge, a high guard becoming a sweep of steel like a striking falcon, then back and away, turning, blocking, dancing through the forms against an invisible opponent with only the gasp and sigh of air over blade for accompaniment. He felt Alderan watching him, tracing each move he made down the yard, but inside his perfect sphere of concentration the old man’s scrutiny ran off him like rain off a windowpane. Like the sweat down the channel of his spine as the sun warmed the day and his longsword flew.
Down the yard and back again, his feet scuffling on the earth. Faster now, more fluid; he didn’t feel the fabric of his whites tugging at his legs, the growing dampness of sweat around his waist. He was approaching that time-stretching place where hand and wrist and arm moved faster than serpents, faster than thought . . . Then Alderan spoke again and shattered it.
‘Come south with me.’
Gair mistimed the next move and the tip of the blade scored a line through the dust perilously close to his toes. ‘What?’
‘Come to Gimrael. I think I know where we might find the location of Corlainn’s starseed, and I could use your help.’
Gair straightened up, breathing a little hard. Back home in Leah the snowbells would hardly have begun to poke their noses above the drifts, but on the Western Isles spring was well advanced and warm as a northern summer. ‘I have work to do, Alderan.’
‘I don’t think the faculty has seen you in the lecture halls in a month,’ said the old man mildly. ‘You’re either here or off Goddess knows where shape-shifting.’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘Yes, and that’s what concerns me. You’re working so hard to turn yourself into the perfect weapon that you’re not giving yourself time to heal.’ Alderan stood up and walked down the three creaky steps to the yard. ‘Are you still having nightmares?’
His rhythm broken, Gair lowered the sword and let the tip chop into the dirt. ‘Sometimes,’ he hedged. Chop, chop went the blade, cutting little grooves in the packed earth like marks on a tally-stick. ‘Mostly they’re just confused – memories all mixed up and spliced together. Tanith said it would take time for them to settle down.’
‘You need to get away from here, let yourself breathe again.’
Gair watched the blade counting out the other dreams, barely feeling his hand contract and relax, nor the weight of the steel dragging at the muscles of his forearm. The other dreams were the ones that hurt the most and left him sweating tears, with a weight in his chest as if his lungs were made of cold, dark iron.
‘You know I can’t go back to the mainland – the Church saw to that.’
‘So come with me. The desert has its own dangers, true enough, but it’s far away from here.’ Alderan’s tone became gentler. ‘Not all memories should be clung to, lad.’
‘And you think Gimrael will help me forget?’ said Gair bitterly. ‘A place where every face I see will remind me of her?’ Another chop into the dirt, harder than the others; he leaned on the blade, driving it deeper, and didn’t look up. ‘No.’
The idea of leaving Aysha behind, even though she was long gone to ash, filled him with something close to panic. Not to be amongst the objects she had touched, not exist in the space they’d shared . . . No. He couldn’t – wouldn’t – do that.
As he worked the sword’s point deeper into the earth, fine brown dust dulled the shine on the blade. He’d dulled the edge, too, but nothing a few minutes’ work with an oilstone wouldn’t put right. Gouging the earth was strangely satisfying; it reminded him of poking a stick into the smooth wet sand below Drumcarrick Head on summer evenings, in the hopes of digging up razor-shell clams to bake on the embers of a driftwood fire.
‘Haral told me something he’d learned in the desert wars, at Samarak,’ Alderan said absently. ‘He said that picking the best ground is halfway to winning the battle.’
‘It’s one of the things they taught us at the Motherhouse.’ Finally Gair set the sword’s point on the ground between his feet and folded his hands on the pommel, looking Alderan squarely in the eye. ‘They also taught us that sometimes we don’t have a choice. Sometimes we have to take the battle to our enemy.’
The old man didn’t blink. ‘I won’t let you go north after him, Gair.’
Gair scowled. ‘You can’t stop me.’
Scratching at his beard, Alderan said, ‘Actually, I can, but I’d rather you simply saw sense. When you can’t defeat a man with main strength, you have to do it with guile. There’s no shame in that. Have patience.’
Pulse thumping dangerously hard, the blood loud in his ears, Gair glared at the Guardian of the Veil. ‘You said when, not if. You don’t think I’d beat him.’
‘Right now?’ The old man’s lips twisted ruminatively. ‘No, I don’t. In a fair fight, maybe you would, but Savin’s never been interested in fair. In Gimrael we might find a way to clip his wings without him even feeling it.’ He showed his teeth. ‘It’s not as direct as your approach, but it might be more effective, at least until you’re fully recovered.’
Stung, Gair began to protest. ‘I don’t need to be coddled, Alderan. I’m fine—’
‘Are you? Are you really?’ Blue eyes fixed him, cold as glacial ice beneath those tangled brows, and he had to turn his head away before they saw too much. ‘Do you remember: last year you gave me your word that one day I could ask you to do something for me, and you’d do it?’
The inn in Dremen. Sudden anxiety fluttered inside Gair, thrashing against his ribs. Dismayed, he stared at the dusty ground. If the old man called in that favour, he would have no choice but to go with him.
Alderan grunted, satisfied. ‘I see that you do remember. This is that day, and this is me asking. Come to El Maqqam with me, and maybe we can bring this wretched business to an end.’
Every face a reflection of Aysha, every voice an echo. Don’t ask me to do this. ‘I can’t.’
The resolute lines of the old man’s face did not relent. If anything they hardened. ‘You can and you will, Gair,’ he said harshly. ‘On your honour: this one thing, and we’re done.’
‘Oh, we’re done all right.’ Gair turned on his heel and strode over to his scabbard. Slamming the sword home, he glared back at Alderan. ‘I will make him pay. As the Goddess is my witness, I will put Savin in the ground.’
‘And once you’ve done that, what then?’ the old man demanded. ‘Once you’ve filled the hole in your heart with hate so there’s no room in it for anything else, how will you let it go when you’ve nothing left to hate any more?’
‘I don’t know!’ Gair threw down the sword. ‘I don’t know, Alderan! I can’t see past what I have to do – I’ll deal with what comes after that when it comes!’
He’d looked to the future, and it ended at Savin’s death. The road unrolled to a corpse; there was nothing beyond it but blackness, as if the significance of it was so enormous that it blotted out all light from a world beyond that point.
Alderan reached out to him, perhaps intending a sympathetic touch, but Gair shied from the contact as if it would sting.
‘I’ve got things to do,’ he said and scooped up his sword, slinging the baldric over his shoulder.
The old man’s gaze followed him across the yard, heavy on the back of his neck with things unsaid. When he reached the opposite steps and began to ascend them, Alderan called after him. ‘I will hold you to your word, Gair. Three days, then we embark for Gimrael.’
Three days, then we embark on a colossal waste of time. But he’d given his word, damn it. He couldn’t take it back now.
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