River of Souls

River of Souls

illustration by matt stawicki

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When Asa left his home in Ysterien, his family gave him three gifts.

The first was passage on the fastest trade ship sailing between Ysterien’s chief port of Karda and its sister in the province of Pommersien—an extravagant gift but a necessary one. Each year, fewer merchants dared the overland routes between Ysterien and the empire over the mountains. The historians claimed the Erythandran Empire had fallen twenty years before, but it was falling still, a slow, erratic, and seemingly endless descent. Like a land besieged by drought, its borders crumbled, its provinces shrank into new and smaller kingdoms with uncertain futures, like dust caught and driven by a hot wind.

The second gift was a cousin to the first, a generous sum of money to account for expenses beyond the ship voyage itself. His family had always been practical, even when indulging him in this most impractical journey. They offered advice, too, but they always had, his mother, his young stepfather, the many brothers, half-brothers, sisters, and cousins employed in the family banking concerns. The money was more than a gift—it was a sign that he belonged to the household.

Once Asa reached the port, he sold his passage to the first taker. He sent all his luggage, except one small trunk, back to his mother. He did not bother with a note. She would guess what he’d done. Then he hired a horse from a stable near the harbor district and repacked the contents of his trunk into saddlebags. His destination had not changed, but he wanted to make this journey on his own terms, not under the watchful eye of the ship’s crew, who undoubtedly reported to their guild and house, and from thence to his mother.

“You’re mad,“ the stable owner said.

Asa shrugged. “It’s necessary. Do you want the trunk?”

“Of course I want the trunk. I’ll give you thirty draqirii for it—silver ones. But you’re mad to try the mountain roads. Word came back last month that Hanídos evicted the emperor’s soldiers. Things are somewhat unsettled there.”

Unsettled, meaning dangerous to foreigners.

“I understand,” Asa said mildly. “And I want fifty draqirii. That trunk is made from good, solid cedar wood. My mother commissioned it from House Jawero especially for this journey. Besides, you could sell it back to her for a profit.”

The stable master’s lips twitched. “You’re more like a merchant than a banker’s son. But it’s true. And she would thank me. Eventually.”

In the end, he counted out sixty draqirii. For luck, he told Asa. The goddess Lir always loved a blind man, in honor of her brother, Toc, who had plucked out his own eyes to make the sun and moon. And Asa was as obstinately blind a man as the stable master had ever known.

Asa’s family had said much the same to him when he first proposed this journey east. In the end, however, his mother had agreed. “One last indulgence,“ she’d said with dry humor. Then her expression had turned speculative. “I will be curious to see if it changes you.”

The stable boys finished up their work. Asa mounted the horse easily. From the cobblestoned yard of the stables, the land sloped downward toward the harbor, and he had a clear view of the ocean-filled horizon. The day was bright, the spring breezes warm and caressing, and the seas were like a vast blue jewel cupped in invisible hands. Miles away, in his mother’s household, his family would be gathered around the table.

His mother’s last words, her strange assessing expression, came back to him.

She spoke as if she were certain I will return.

He struggled against the tug of expectation. His mother always spoke that way, he told himself. That was how she often achieved her desires—simply by taking for granted her wishes would be fulfilled.

It was time to go. He checked the balance of his sword against his hip and the ease with which he might reach the knives in either boot. He murmured one of the spells that his oldest cousin had taught him in exchange for Asa’s favorite poetry books. He noticed the stable master’s faint surprise at these proceedings, as if a banker’s son were not capable of dealing with anything but coins and notes of promise.

He was not entirely wrong, Asa thought. Even ten years of sword lessons from the best masters—another indulgence—might not prove enough for this journey.

“I should pay you more,” he said to the stable master. “I probably won’t bring this horse back.”

“I know,“ the other man said. “That’s why I asked so much for the hire.” He hesitated a moment, then asked, ”Why are you going east?”

Because I have too many dreams, Asa thought.

* * *

His dreams followed him over the well-kept roads of Ysterien, which wound upward through the high valleys of the coast and into the foothills. These were dreams of past lives, the memories each soul carried across the void from death into rebirth. In all of them, Asa was a warrior, hand gripping a sword or spear. Sometimes he dreamed of battle. More often, he dreamed of standing guard in an endless night. The most persistent dreams had nothing to do with war, not directly, but with a woman.

She stood at the window, her gaze turned away. It was a brilliant summer’s day. Sunlight poured through the glass. Outside, the familiar expanse of crimson roof rose like waves between and around the spires of the palace. Asa knew this room, knew this woman. My beloved, he thought, his heart catching at how the light outlined her cheek. So it had been from the very start, their love as natural as breathing.

Even as he recognized these details, the dream overwhelmed him. He was no longer Asa, a young man from Ysterien, but the soldier Adele.

“When do you go?“ the other woman asked.

“We march for the border tomorrow.”

“Ah.” It was more a breath released than a reply. Then: ”I should speak of the Empire, and how it has no borders except the sea, but that would too unnatural. Also, it would be a lie.     I . . . I would have no lies between us tonight, Adele.”

Adele shifted on her feet. “No lies,“ she said softly. “Never. And when I return—”

But she could not finish that sentence without lying. After all, she was a warrior. And war made such promises impossible to keep.

* * *

The horse died in the western passes, after the bandit attack. Asa fought off his attackers, then fled, but only three weeks had passed since that early spring morning in Karda. Snows made the broken, narrow roads even more difficult, and the bandits’ horses were small-foot ponies, well used to these parts. They easily outpaced his gelding, and would have overtaken him, except for the spell from Asa’s cousin.

The spell’s potency had a limit, however. Three times he used the magic to cast a veil between him and his attackers. Three times the bandits regrouped and tracked him over the frost-limned path. His magic was not enough. He had to break the trail completely.

Asa rode as fast as he dared. Once he was certain of a moment’s safety, he leapt from the horse’s back. He wrapped the reins around his hand and drew his sword. “Ei rûf ane gotter. Ei rûf ane Lir unde Toc unde der strom.”

I call upon the gods. Upon Lir and Toc and the magic current.

The old invocation to the gods, from the days before the Empire, when the tribes of Erythandra rode into the southern plains, conquering.

A strong green scent filled the air, like the aroma of spice boxes from Andelizien, like the herb-laden closet where his mother stored her most precious silken gowns. Asa swallowed against the sudden upsurge of memory, then set the point of his sword to his horse’s neck.

The beast started at the first prick, then bucked hard. Asa dragged the horse’s head down, braced himself against the mountain, and drove his sword into its neck.  Blood poured over his hands in a rush. The horse sank to its knees with a strange high cry that went on and on, until Asa pressed the blade home.

Blood and more blood. He thought he must vomit from the stink.  Moving blindly, he unbuckled the smallest and most important saddlebag. He laid that to one side, away from the struggling animal, then set his shoulder against his horse and shoved until he thought his heart might burst from the effort. Ei rûf ane Lir. No, for death he had to call upon Lir’s brother, Toc the Blind, Toc the warrior god. Ei rûf ane Toc. Ei rûf . . .

The horse gave a shudder and rolled over the side of the cliff. Asa fell against a rock. Eyes closed, heart thrumming, he listened as the still-living body slithered down the mountainside. His hands felt sticky with blood. He wiped them on his trousers, then returned the sword to its sheath, forgetting until too late to clean the blade. His old sword master would tell him exactly how careless that was.

Careless. He nearly laughed, nearly cried.

He might have stood there another hour, but the echo of hoofbeats plucked him from inactivity. The bandits. They had to believe he’d gone over the cliff with his horse. He slung the saddlebag over his shoulder, checked his sword and knives once more, and ran.

* * *

He left the main trail for a crooked footpath that wound upward into the barren heights. Here were the true middle mountains, the stony ridge dividing Ysterien from the dying Erythandran Empire. It was an empty land. He walked alone except for his thoughts and his dreams. At night, the stars were like a carpet of salt in the blackness, like a river of souls, crossing to new lives.

He had almost forgotten about the rest of the living world when he rounded an enormous boulder, only to find himself a few feet away from a spotted lynx, crouched over a hare. The lynx glanced up and stared at him with golden eyes. Its fur was tawny and thick, the ears tufted. Blood stained its muzzle.

The lynx growled. Asa started back and fumbled for his sword. He had it drawn when the lynx seized the hare in its jaws and darted away.

Asa blew out a breath and resheathed his sword with tremulous hands.

After that, he headed down slope, seeking the lower trails, but these ended in rockslides or among the thick pine forests. So he retraced his steps upward and east, over a shoulder of bare rock, along melt streams edged by jagged blue ice, and between fantastical columns etched by wind and cracking cold.

It was among these columns that a late spring snowstorm overtook him.

Within moments he was lost in a blinding cloud of white. He pulled his hood low over his face and struggled forward against the wind. Already snow covered the trail. Asa slipped on a patch of hidden ice and struck an unseen rock, so hard it drove the breath from his body. Numb and blind, he stumbled to his feet, fell again, then crawled through the drifts until he reached a rocky overhang. It was such a relief to be free of the wind that he collapsed into a heap. He had no spells to drive away so much cold. He was shaking too hard to speak the ones he did have for fire. When the storm passed, and a band of trappers came upon him, Asa was curled into a stiff knot, gripping the saddlebag to his chest.

Hands hooked under his elbows and hauled him upright. The frost had sealed his eyes shut. One of the strangers spat and rubbed a gloved hand over the lids until Asa could open them. A dark brown face peered at him, the skin furrowed and scored, the eyes like swift straight lines drawn in ink. The stranger spoke to an unseen companion. Then he (she?) and the other slung Asa’s arms over their shoulders. He tried to protest, but his tongue refused to cooperate. The strangers were not unnecessarily rough, but he was a tall young man, and they could not help the bumping and jolting as they dragged him to their own camp and laid him next to the bright blur of a fire.

Someone rested a hand over his forehead.

Ei rûf ane gôtter . . . ane Lir unde Toc . . .

A cloud of magic bloomed around him—its sharp green scent a hundred times more powerful than the spells learned from his cousin. He gave a sudden gasp. A hand pressed him backward against the hard earth. He slept.

* * *

Once more he dreamed of past lives, of one in particular.

Sleep, Adele. A woman’s voice, deep like a murmuring dove. Sleep, my heart.

I sleep, said Asa who was Adele. What is it?

A hand brushed over his chest, her chest. So light, like a feather dancing over her bare skin. Her belly rippled with desire, and she turned toward the woman with a groan. There is but one way I can sleep after this.

The only answer was bright laughter, a brief flutter of lips against Adele’s throat, and then the hand pulled Adele close until lips met warm lips.

* * *

Next morning, he woke to an ordinary world.

The sky stretched out gray and endless above. Nearby, the fire burned low. Asa smelled wood smoke, roasting mutton, and a sour sweat-scent he knew was his own. He stirred, flexed his arms, and felt an ache throughout his body.

“So you did not die.”

A woman bent over him. He could only tell her sex by her voice. She was dressed in thick wool clothing that obscured her body, and the fur-lined hood was drawn close around her face, but the voice was clearly a woman’s, high and sweet. She spoke his own language, with an accent that he now recognized as the mountain dialect.

“Can you talk?” she asked.

He nodded. Swallowed to wet his throat. “Yes, I—”

“Stop. Drink a cup of tea first. You’ll find it easier.”

She motioned to someone behind her. A man appeared with a tin mug. It was tea, scalding hot and flavored with spices and butter. Asa nearly choked.

“Drink,“ the woman repeated.

He drank. The tea lit a flame inside his belly. The stiffness eased, and he could almost think about eating.

“Do you need to piss?” the woman asked.

He shook his head.

“All dried out. I thought so. Naran, more tea.”

The man returned to fetch Asa’s mug. Asa peered at him. No, this was a second man, though he looked much like the first one. Brothers?

The woman’s eyes narrowed in laughter, as if she could read his thoughts. “They are brothers, yes, and one cousin. Not mine, of course. That would be ill luck.” Something in her expression, the warmth of her voice, gave another meaning to the word luck, but Asa had no strength to be overly curious. He drank his tea and listened as the woman explained more.

Her name was Zayaa. She and her companions had come into the mountains early to trap wolves and lynxes for their pelts. It was by chance and Lir’s grace they had discovered him in his inadequate shelter. Asa listened and drank more tea. At her command, the cousin brought a bowl of beef broth. Asa drank that, too.

But after the tea and the broth, Zayaa motioned the others away. The men withdrew from the camp, and Zayaa bent over Asa once more.

“Your hands,“ she said.

He stared down at his hands. He hardly recognized them—swollen and cracked, the fingers black with frostbite. The palms, though—the palms were stained red.

Like blood. With a shudder, he recalled the lynx crouched over the hare.

Zayaa was studying him with a grave expression. “What did you kill?”

“My horse,” he whispered.

It did not occur to him to ask how she knew.

Zayaa said nothing. He wanted to explain about the bandits, but she turned away and called for her men to return.

* * *

They cared for him three more days. Asa slept and ate. He drank whatever Naran gave him. Zayaa ordered the men to strip Asa, then examined his body with impersonal thoroughness. Bruised ribs. Various festering scrapes. Frostbite in three fingers, she reported. The feet too had suffered.

While her men tended to chores, Zayaa used her magic to heal the worst. She managed to save all three fingers. His ribs no longer ached with each breath. When he could finally stand on his own, his feet felt stiff, but she told him that would ease in time.

His hands were another matter. To his eyes, they appeared normal. To be sure, they were tender from the frostbite, and chapped from the cold, but still familiar and ordinary.

Zayaa touched one hand lightly and tilted it from side to side. Asa glimpsed a dark red sheen over the palms. He blinked, and the sheen disappeared. But Zayaa said nothing more, and Asa didn’t dare to ask. The morning sun was rising. The woman and her companions were clearly anxious to continue their hunting expedition.

He bought a blanket, water skin, and pouch of dried meat from them. He also bought a pair of gloves from the cousin, having lost his own during the storm. Then, after a brief farewell, he once more left behind human companionship for the empty trail. No more storms overtook him, and between the meat he bought from the trappers, and the hares and other creatures he trapped himself, he no longer starved. Two weeks later, he came to the edge of the mountains.

Asa paused and stared. He had grown so used to the endless succession of tall peaks that he needed a moment to take in this vast expanse of sky and plains. There were low hills to the north, but they made hardly more than a dark blue ripple against the horizon. The Erythandran Empire. He could almost believe it once had no borders.

. . . no borders except the sea . . .

The dream whispered at the edge of his memory as he turned south through the foothills. An old trail soon brought him to a genuine road. Within a few days, he reached the border of Hanídos.

The Imperial army had returned. There were not as many soldiers as Asa would have expected, however, and he sensed a restlessness in the towns he passed. More often, the citizens talked of Veraene instead of Erythandra or the empire. He hurried on to the first trading post. There, with some trepidation, he changed his draqirii for Imperial denieri. He bought another horse and fresh supplies. Then he took the highway heading into Veraene.

* * *

In later years he recalled very little of his progress toward Veraene’s capital. There were the broad highways, of course, the good inns that took his money and gave him comfort. What stayed with him, however, was the image of the land undulating toward the horizon, like a great ocean of grass, growing ever greener through the season.

On a hot midsummer day, he arrived at the capital city of Duenne. If the plains of Veraene were an ocean, Duenne was an island, its tall buildings of amber and gold rising toward the palace. He had expected to be struck amazed, and he was not disappointed. Three million lived within these walls, a half million more in settlements in the open fields nearby.

The guards at the gate eyed Asa with suspicion. He no longer had the air of someone who belonged to a wealthy house. His horse was a sturdy plain beast. His belongings were few. The months of travel had stained his remaining clothes. He resisted the urge to rub his gloved hands on his trousers.

“Name?“ they asked.

He gave it.

The guard glanced at Asa’s gloves, but all he said next was, ”From Ysterien Province?”

Asa nodded, seeing no reason to argue that Ysterien had never submitted to the Empire. Then, before they could ask the next obvious question, he said, “My family wished me to visit the important cities of Erythandra. So I came here.”

His answer provoked a startled laugh from the guards, but after a few more questions and answers, which they recorded, they let him pass.

It was late afternoon as he rode through Duenne’s crowded dusty streets—too late to accomplish the purpose of his visit. Besides, he had not forgotten how the guards stared at him. He decided to find a room for the night so he could take a proper bath.

 Asa chose the next inn he passed. It was small but clean, and the cost of a bath and private room far less than he expected. No doubt he would hate the cooking. It was possible, too, the inn was not as safe as he hoped. Well, he had his sword and knives, and the spells from his cousin.

The bondsmaid took away his clothes for brushing. After a soaking bath, Asa dressed and ate his dinner of bread and cheese, which the girl brought to his rooms. Then he sat on his lumpy bed and opened the saddlebag he had guarded through bandits and storms and the endless ride over the plains.

A dozen silver draqirii remained, along with an almost equal number of denieri. His tinderbox, the ball of yeast, the salt container he had replenished several times over. An old ring from his grandmother, which his mother had insisted he bring. The ring was a plain circle of gold, with an onyx stone. Running along the interior was the family motto in old Ysterien script: Gold is our guardian and we are the guardians of gold.

Asa set these aside, and took out his mother’s third and last gift.

It was a leather pouch, deceptively plain and yet well-made. Within was a letter from his uncle to his mother, and another envelope sealed with wax and magic. The wax carried the insignia and motto of his mother’s household. The magic ensured that no one except the letter’s recipient could break the seal. It was not a complicated spell—Asa himself had often used it when sending letters he wished to keep secret from his inquisitive relatives—but this particular variation would turn the letter to dust if someone even attempted to tamper with the magic.

His mother had summoned him to her private sitting room to present it. He remembered her stiff manner, the way she lifted her chin as she spoke the words, ”The letter of introduction you requested, Asa.”

No other indication of what the letter contained. He had not dared to ask who sealed it, whether his uncle or his mother. It hadn’t mattered. He only cared that he had obtained this almost impossible gift.

The letter to his mother, however, was not sealed. He read it through once more.

To my sister Benaw,

The favor is what you wish. As always. Its worth is another matter. As you know, I have not attended Duenne’s Court these past thirty-seven years. Even so, if my name and my word serve our household, I shall not withhold it. To that end, I enclose a letter of introduction for your son, Asa, along with directions to the household in question, which her chief servant passed to me at my inquiry. Please understand that her position has altered in the past few years, and that she no longer admits many visitors. . . .

What followed were the usual disclaimers of this or that. Asa could hardly picture his uncle—a crabbed, cautious old man who loved nothing more than a hot fire and a soft bondsmaid—living in Duenne’s famous Court, but his mother had assured him it was so. Not only had he lived there six years as an emissary from Ysterien and the banking guilds, but Duenne’s most famous poet had admitted him into her private circle.

Tanja Duhr.

Asa had bought all the books of her published poetry before he turned twelve. There were more poems, he knew—private writings she shared only with friends. His uncle had one such volume, which he refused to allow anyone to copy. Asa touched the seal enclosing his uncle’s letter. The magic was not embedded in the wax itself, but in the edges between. Between air and paper, between breath and breath.

Asa’s pulse beat faster with anticipation. Once he had lived as a woman, a soldier of the Empire. Once, he and Tanja Duhr had been lovers. For so long, he had not allowed himself to believe it. Poets and scholars both talked of souls meeting again and again throughout time, but it was a rare thing, almost impossible that the one who died and was reborn rediscovered the still-living heart-mate.

Tomorrow, I will see you again.

* * *

No life dreams awaited him that night, though he expected them. Instead, he dreamed of his father, a quiet man who had died almost nineteen years ago. Asa’s mother had remarried at once, both for her own pleasure and to produce more sons and daughters. She never spoke the name of that first husband, but at times her gaze turned westward toward the seas, as if searching for his presence. When Asa woke in the early dawn, he wondered how much of his self, his body came from her, and how much from that half-remembered man.

* * *

“How old are you?”

Asa shifted on his feet. He stood in what passed for an entry hall in this narrow household. It was scarcely midmorning. From the kitchen came a fragrant tide: the scent of newly baked bread, along with other, enticing aromas. Breakfast at the inn had proved just as awful as he expected. After a protracted negotiation, Asa had sold his horse to the landlord, then hired a carriage to take him into the northern hills overlooking the main city. The final segment of his journey had required two hours. To sit here meekly while this pock-faced young woman questioned him was more than he could bear.

“My age does not matter,“ he said. “Give the letter to your mistress.”

The woman smirked. “I will. But not until you answer me.”

Her tone was impertinent. He wanted to smack her. She was nothing more than a serving woman. A bondsmaid. “Twenty-three.”

Now she met his gaze directly, clearly laughing at him. “And you want what? A recommendation to Court? A letter of introduction to the University?”

“None of those. I—” He checked himself and drew a breath. “I want,“ he said with exaggerated patience, ”a few moments with Mistress Tanja Duhr. My uncle is her friend. Or was, once. His name is Hêja Dilawer. Say yes or no. I do not pretend the matter is important to anyone but me. But do not tell me any lies.”

She stared at him with narrowed eyes. “You are the nephew of Hêja Dilawer?”

He nodded.

“One moment, then.”

She vanished through a doorway.

Asa waited, overcome by a sudden rush of panic. It was possible Tanja Duhr would refuse to see him, even with a letter from his uncle.

And what if she agrees? What will you say to her?

Before he could decide on an answer, the young woman returned. “She said yes.”

His pulse beating faster, Asa slid the letter inside his shirt and followed her through a narrow corridor and up winding stairs. The scent of sweet oil hung in the air. No lamps were lit, but sun poured through the narrow windows lining the stairwell, so that some steps were splashed in sunlight, while others remained in shadow.

They passed numerous landings, each with several doors, but the woman did not pause until they reached the top. She opened a wooden door and gestured for him to pass through. Asa touched the letter inside his shirt, felt the ripple of magic against his skin. He was aware of the bondsmaid and her mocking smile, but he no longer cared.

One quick breath. One moment to collect himself. Then he stepped over the threshold.

Sunlight blinded him. He stopped in midstep and blinked. A breeze washed over his face, carrying the scent of blooming roses, lilies, goldenflower, and others he could not identify. When he took a hesitant step to one side, his feet crunched on gravel, then soft dirt. The breeze veered and he caught the unmistakable tang of pine forests. Where was he?

Behind him the door clicked to. Asa blinked again, and his vision cleared.

He stood on the rooftop, in a miniature garden open to the skies. Far below, the vast expanse that was Duenne swept over the plains—south and west and east. He could see the several rings of walls, each one overrun by the populace throughout the centuries, the highway and gates where he entered, the several market squares he’d passed through that morning. To the southeast stood the enormous Imperial palace with its golden towers and crimson roofs. Through the city wound the Gallenz River, like a great blue vein, finally uncurling toward the eastern coast.

“I find it easier to see here,“ said a voice.

Asa turned. A woman sat on a bench underneath a trellis crowded with roses. Next to her was a small box with a slanted top, and a sheet of paper weighted down with a few stones. Several crumpled balls of paper littered the ground underneath. She was barefoot.

Tanja Duhr rose and held out her hand. Asa handed over the letter of introduction and withdrew a step. Duhr touched her fingers to the seal. The air glittered with magic released and the paper fell open.

As she read, Asa allowed himself the luxury of studying her features.

She was old. That struck him at once. Nothing like his dreams. Nor like the portrait his uncle kept in his study, a gift she presented him when he left Court. Irrationally, Asa had expected her to remain immutable, like her words, but no. Her skin was an almost transparent brown, and etched with innumerable faint lines. Her hair was white and thin, drawn back with a ribbon and falling loose down her back. Only her eyes were the same, wide and dark, so dark a brown that they appeared black.

She read swiftly, her expression grave except once, when she smiled, and once again, when her brows drew together. “Your name is Asa,” she said at a last. Her voice was husky, like a dove’s throaty murmur.

He nodded, remembering that voice from his dreams.

“From House Dilawer,“ she went on, ”presently governed by your mother. Your uncle was my friend in Court, as you must know. Would you like to hear what he tells me?”

“I— No. That is not necessary.”

Her mouth twitched in a smile. “I shall tell you nevertheless. You are young, he says. Your mother indulges you with dozens of masters and tutors, more than your brothers and sisters, who are already ably assisting her in the family business of money. To be brief, which your uncle was not, you are quite spoiled.”

Asa closed his eyes. He had not expected such scathing candor. Why had the man given him the letter of introduction then? Dimly, he heard Tanja Duhr saying something about Asa being a stubborn boy.

“Excuse me,“ he said softly. “I—I did not quite understand that last.”

If she noticed his confusion, she said nothing of it. “He tells me you were always a stubborn boy. In many ways that is a good thing. For all that you’ve had a dozen masters for a dozen different pursuits, you do not flit from one to the other. Rather, you work hard until you conquer your ignorance and your inability. Your uncle believes you will make a fine councilor of the House some day.”

“I do not wish to be a councilor or a banker.”

“No? Is that why you came to me? To be a poet?”

“No. I—”

She flicked her hand, silencing him. “You are young. You do not know what you want. Hêja asks me to consider receiving you as a guest here. He calls it giving you a position, but guest is what he means. Though I treasure his friendship, I see no reason to indulge you as your family does.”

A clear dismissal, so abrupt he stood frozen a moment, too shocked to reply. She was like the mountains, he thought. Exactly so, they had stood in snow and indifferent silence as he lay dying. Asa stiffly bowed his head. “Thank you for the grace of this interview, my lady. I shall not trouble you longer.”

He made no move to retrieve the letter. Let her keep it. He turned away and headed toward the wooden door.

“Does your uncle lie?” she called out.

He paused. “What do you mean?”

“He said you were stubborn.”

“You dismissed me.”

“Hardly. I said I would not indulge you. But if you are as stubborn as your uncle claims, I do have one task for you.”

He waited, still unwilling to face her.

Her response was low chuckle. “Indeed,“ she said softly. “He did not lie. You are stubborn.” Then louder, ”Come to me tomorrow morning for instructions. Minne will provide you with a room and whatever else you require.”

* * *

It was the first time they met, she and Tanja Duhr. Adele had come to Duenne to serve in the Emperor’s guards. She was twenty-four, a soldier from the provinces, unaccustomed to palaces and anxious about her duties. When her captain assigned her to the midnight watch on the palace rooftop, she told herself she would stare the night away. No intruder—and there had been dozens since the new Emperor took his throne—could take her unawares.

So when she encountered a woman flitting along the outer walkway, Adele hefted her sword and called challenge.

The woman spun to face Adele, her dark hair swirling like clouds around a storm. Her eyes were wide and bright. Her gown was a shapeless mass of blue cloth. As it floated to rest, silvery threads glinted in the moonlight. She was barefoot.

“The Emperor’s chief guard,“ the woman said in a low voice.

Adele could hear the laughter running underneath. “I do my duty,” she said stiffly, not lowering the sword.

The woman regarded her for a moment, all signs of mirth erased from her expression. “You do,“ she said. “For which I thank you. I was wrong to tease.” She held out her hand. “My name is Tanja.”

Her hand was slim, her clasp firm and warm.

“Mine is Adele.”

* * *

Minne was the young, pockmarked woman from before, and she had accurately predicted her mistress’s decision. When Asa reappeared in the main parlor, still bemused by his interview, she told him she had a bedchamber ready. It was smaller than many of the closets in his mother’s household, but he was grateful for the soft clean mattress and the window overlooking the city below. He also met Yvonne the cook and the two maids who did the cleaning and laundry.

At Minne’s urging he took a second breakfast, then spent the afternoon exploring the neighboring streets. All the houses here were built of red and brown brick, some tall and narrow, others irregular in shape. The streets wound and turned as they wished. Following them, Asa came across numerous tiny courtyards, small gardens, and once a square planted with flowering trees. Standing in their shade, he breathed in the rich scents and wondered what had brought Duhr here, to a place that seemed a hundred miles from Duenne’s Court.

The next morning, Minne woke him at sunrise.

“She wants you,” was all she said.

He struggled into his clothes, splashed water on his face, and gulped down a scalding cup of tea. Then he was jogging up the stairs to the garden, with only a hand against the wall to steady himself. As he stepped over the threshold this second time, a breeze washed his face, carrying the last echoes of the bells from the city below. It had rained overnight, and the air was damp with expectation.

She sat on the same bench as the previous day. This time her writing desk rested on her lap, and she held a pen in her left hand. A fresh sheet lay on top. He could not tell, but he thought there were more crumpled pages surrounding her than the previous day.

“Tell me what you dreamed last night,“ Duhr said.

Asa stopped. “What?”

“You heard me, young man. What did you dream last night?”

She was mocking him. No, she meant it. He could tell by the deepening crease between her white brows.

I dreamed of you in the Emperor’s Court. I dreamed we loved each other.

He kept his gaze carefully averted from hers. Throughout the long journey, he had told himself he only wished to see Tanja Duhr face to face. Then perhaps his past would not haunt him so doggedly. Then, perhaps, he might find his own purpose in this life.

You hoped she would recognize you.

If I did, I knew that for a folly.

Just as it would be folly to declare himself. Too many years had passed since Adele had died.

He shook his head. “I had no dreams.”

“None?”

His mouth went dry under her scrutiny. “None worth telling, my lady.”

She regarded him steadily. “Well, perhaps it is too soon. You may go.”

And with that her attention vanished. Asa waited a moment. When she did not acknowledge him any longer, he silently retreated down the stairs and to the main parlor where Minne sat, writing notes in what appeared to be a ledger.

“You will want your breakfast,” was all she said. “I’ll send word to Yvonne.”

Over the next three weeks, Asa learned every turning in that stairwell. The walls were brick, dark red and fitted together without any mortar, a smooth facade that spiraled around and around in patterns of sunlight and shadow. There were six landings in all. The steps were massive slabs of blue-gray stone, the lips worn into curls, and the center sunken, as if a giant had pressed its thumb into the surface. Each time he came into her presence, he hoped she would ask him to linger, that she would speak of her poems, her life in Court, those years with Adele. Each time, he was disappointed.

“What did you dream?”

Within, I dreamed of you. I dreamed of twelve years together.

Out loud, “This and that. Nothing interesting. Just a dream about my old sword master.”

His words seemed to pique her interest, but instead of questioning him further, she merely shook her head. “Thank you, Asa. That is all.”

Once, she added, ”Do not be afraid to tell me the truth. I promise I shall not laugh.”

There were many mornings when he thought truth might spill from his mouth, but always his throat turned dry before he could speak. It took only a moment of wetting his tongue before the words vanished, and he found himself mired in the details of mundane dreams, and not those of Adele. It was as if he could not speak the truth until she did.

I am not certain I could, even then.

At last, as the summer passed into early autumn, she seemed to lose interest.

“Shall I go?“ he asked.

“No. Not yet. We have not yet exhausted our mutual stubbornness.”

Later, Minne said, ”She no longer writes. Not for the past few years.”

Minne was no bondsmaid, he had learned. She was a distant cousin from northern Veraene who served as Duhr’s secretary, companion, and sometimes nurse. Asa wanted to know what Minne meant by, She no longer writes. Of course Duhr wrote. Every day when he reported to her presence, Duhr had paper and pen and that same small writing stand. More than once she was writing swiftly as he appeared.

But he remembered the discarded sheets, and how their number grew and shrank over the weeks.

Then, one morning a month after he had arrived, he came to Duhr as usual, only to find her distracted and staring toward the east. He waited, but she did not give him the usual command to recite his dreams. After a few moments, he wandered toward the wall that surrounded the rooftop. Autumn had arrived without his being aware. Crimson and russet dotted the northern hills, and the plains had taken on the dusty brown haze of plowed fields cleared of their harvests. Asa stared south and west, following the highway as it looped over the plains toward the indistinct horizon. Somewhere, in faraway Ysterien, his mother waited, expecting his return. Somewhere the bones of his horse whitened under snow and sun.

He must have spoken that last out loud, because she said, “What happened to your horse?”

Asa turned to meet her intent gaze.  

“The truth, Asa. This one time. Please.”

. . . I would have no lies between us . . .

It was this memory, in all its incarnations, that tripped him at last into speech.

“I killed it,” he whispered.

She nodded, in a way that reminded him of Zayaa. “Tell me more.”

Slowly, with many false starts and additions, he recounted the day of the bandit attack. He had left the last wayside hostel behind a few days before. It had been an uncomfortable experience, with the sense of many eyes upon him as he set off into the true mountains. But he told himself he had his sword and knives, the spells his cousin taught him.

And my stubbornness.

Duhr said nothing, not even a gesture to urge him on.

He continued with more fluency, describing the state of the trail, the frost and patches of ice, even on that late spring day. The silence of the hills. The echo of his gelding’s hooves over the stone. The first itch of fear when he realized his situation. Then followed a swift recounting of the pursuit, the spells he used, the decision to kill his horse and sent its body over the cliff so the bandits would believe him dead as well.

“It made me sick afterwards,“ he said. “I cannot be sorry I did it. But I can be sorry I needed to.”

Eventually he found the courage to turn around. Tanja Duhr beckoned him closer. He did not resist as she took his hand and pulled away the glove he had not removed in her presence. His hands would never be beautiful. The frostbite had marked him with scars, and cracks that refused to heal. As she turned his hand over, he flinched. At last he dared to look.

Faint red reflected from his palms. Just a moment, then it was gone.

“Thank you,” Duhr said.

“For what?“ he whispered.

“For even this much of the truth.”

* * *

He spent the afternoon in his rooms, brooding over what she meant by even this much. In the evening, he tried to walk himself to distraction, but nothing helped. He returned and ate the dinner Yvonne the cook brought to him, hardly tasting it. Toward nightfall he fell into a doze.

Minne woke him at midnight. “Go to her.”

Confused, he said, ”Where?”

“In her garden, of course.”

Minne lit the lamps in the stairwell with a word of magic. A strong green scent coiled upward, following Asa on the familiar route. By the time he reached the top landing, the sleep had cleared from his head.

Outside, moonlight washed over the garden path. Tanja Duhr sat on her bench, wrapped in loose robes. She was bent over her writing desk, staring at a fresh blank sheet of paper. Her face was wrinkled in irritation or concentration, he couldn’t tell which. There were no discarded papers on the ground, only a few sheets with writing stacked beside her on the bench itself.

“Tell me more dreams,“ she said without looking up.

“You woke me for that?”

She shrugged ”You are young. You won’t miss your sleep.”

“What about you?”

Now a shadow showed her faint smile. “I am old. I would rather work than sleep until my death. Now, tell me your dreams, or admit you’ve been lying to me.”

He hesitated. He knew what she looked for—life dreams, those fragments of memory from the past. Wasn’t that the reason for his journey? To understand his dreams?

A lamp sparked into life in the palace, far to the east. Its light filled a high arched window, in a tower somewhere in the middle of the grounds. Asa stared at that window. With a start, he realized it was the window where he and Tanja had spoken, that day before Adele marched to Károví with the others.

Stay silent, stay safe, said his other self.

He laughed to himself. If he had wanted safety, he would have stayed in Ysterien, in his mother’s household, where the greatest danger he faced was an inaccurate balance between yesterday and today. Even such mistake was unlikely, certainly not fatal, since his mother would surely assign another to check his work. So what was the truth?

The truth is I wanted freedom. I wanted . . . the chance to make my own mistakes, outside the nest of family.

And he had, in choosing to sell his passage on the ship, in choosing to travel overland, in spite of the journey’s dangers. He began to understand Adele, and himself. A little.

But Tanja waited for his reply. She would wait patiently, but not forever.

“I never said good-bye,“ he said softly. “I meant to, that morning. But you had not slept well for weeks before. I wanted  . . . I wanted to give you the gift of peace.”

Silence. Not even the hush of her breath.

He went on to describe that morning, the preparations Adele and the other soldiers hurried to complete. He, she had meant to return to their quarters, to steal a few moments for a proper farewell; but then came an unexpected summons from the general. They would march at once. No more delay.

“I wrote,” Asa said. “many letters. It was not enough. I meant to return. I could not.”

He stopped and closed his eyes, waiting. The silence stretched between them. So tight, it was as though the air shivered. At last he heard a faint scratching. He turned to see Tanja Duhr bent over her desk, writing.

* * *

He had expected everything to change after that. It did, but not as he had imagined.

Minne waited until midmorning to wake him. She set his breakfast tray on the table and flung the curtains open. The midmorning sun poured through. “She wants you again.”

Asa grunted. He had spent a restless night after leaving Tanja Duhr. There had been dreams, but of an ordinary kind, filled with murky shapes, like waves rolling through a sea of night. He rubbed his eyes with the back of one hand and hoped the tea was strong.

“You have a letter, too.”

That brought him awake and sitting up. “Who sent it?”

Minne ignored his sharp tone, but her shrug was expressive. “It came with one of the merchant caravans. A runner brought it to the house. It’s on your tray.”

He waited until she closed the door to leave his bed. Even then, he found himself moving with the slow caution of an old man. Oh, yes, he knew the sender. It could only be his mother.

Minne had tucked the letter under the small pot of tea. It was a thick envelope of yellow parchment, the wax seal imprinted with the mark of his mother’s house. His name and Duhr’s were written in a strong slanted hand—yes, his mother’s. Other than one or two thumbprints, the paper was unmarred by its long journey. Eyeing it, Asa poured a cup and drank a scalding mouthful to clear his head. It would not do to approach this letter half asleep.

The tea burned his throat. Yvonne the cook had predicted his needs this morning, evidently. He finished off the cup, then warily picked up the letter. Magic ran over the surface, nipping at his fingers. Immediately the outer covering fell open to show two more, smaller sheets inside. Asa took them up and scanned the first.

To my son Asa, I write this knowing you will have reached Duenne. I have no news for you—not of good fortune or bad. I only wished to send you this note of recommendation to House Yasemîn. With it, you may draw money as you need.

The second was just as she described, a formal recommendation of Asa, fifth son of House Dilawer, to those who governed House Yasemîn. Many complicated phrases followed that one declaration, but the sum of their meaning was clear. He would have whatever funds he needed, with no restriction. House Dilawer pledged not only all restitution, but the good will of the house for as long as Benaw and her daughters governed.

An alliance. She offered them an alliance.

It was such a valuable thing that his skin prickled, in spite of the warm autumn day.

She thinks to bribe me to come home.

He nearly crumpled both letters and tossed them out the window. But as his hand closed, he stopped himself with a sour laugh. This . . . this was undoubtedly a bribe, but a subtle one. And he might need the money.

That thought, which came too easily to him, gave him pause. Nevertheless he set the letters aside and devoured his breakfast with greater appetite. Then he washed his face and dressed in clean shirt and trousers. Tanja Duhr waited for him.

She waited, but not as she had on previous days. She sat under the trellis, with her desk on her lap, writing. Rose petals drifted down from the vines, a soft rainfall of yellow, crimson, and dusky red. There was a faint edge to the breeze that blew from the north.

“You asked for me,“ he said at last.

Still writing, she nodded. Her hand gripped the pen with assurance, but her skin seemed more transparent than usual, and the lines in her face stood out much clearer. A trick of the sunlight, he told himself; but he noticed signs that the night had taken its price from her, as well. The sharper angle of her wrist bones, the bruises under her eyes, the slight tremor when she set her pen aside.

“Your mother sent a letter,” she said.

He nodded. Minne had told her, obviously.

“She wrote to me as well,“ Tanja said. “A precaution, in case yours went astray.”

He snorted. Tanja’s mouth quirked into a smile.

“Beware the enemy,” she said softly. “But first, be certain who your enemy is.”

With that, she dipped her pen into the inkwell. “No dreams, today. Today I would like to hear about your future.”

* * *

Of course Asa could not predict his future. What Tanja wanted, she explained, were those ephemeral glimpses of what might be. The future blooms from the seeds of our desires, she said. A hundred different answers occurred to him, all of them like the trivial dreams he first recited at her command. She wants the hardest truths. She always did.

So, the truth. He met her gaze directly and said, “You asked me what I desire. You. You are what I desire.”

For the first time, she appeared shaken.

So was he. Until today, he had only comprehended the most obvious reasons for coming to Duenne. His dreams. Their love interrupted. The need to bid farewell to the past before he could truly face the present. He had no wish to recall the words, however. They were true. Nor could he utter facile declarations of love. Theirs was an uncommon desire, divided by death and years and the void between lives.

“I desire you,” he repeated. “Not as we are, but as we might be someday, in some life.”

Tanja shook her head. “The gods make no such promises.”

“How could they? We are the ones who make our futures. We make them from all the moments of today.”

Now she smiled. “We have changed our roles, it seems. You speak immortal words, while I stutter about the commonplace.”

“Is that what I did?”

“At first.”

And so the conversation wound through the morning, easy and comfortable, ranging through dreams and memories of past lives. For the first time since he arrived they dined together in the early afternoon, and again that evening. They spoke of lives together, of those long separated, though these were fewer. Asa remembered more of the wartime years.  Tanja told him about those in Duenne, after the Empire suffered its defeats, and those she learned from correspondents in Károví and elsewhere. It was like stitching together a cloak from many varied pieces, a thing that could never be whole. And yet was.

The pattern continued throughout the autumn and into winter. As the season changed, Tanja Duhr retired to an airy room just under the rooftop garden. She no longer went barefoot, and the number of robes she wore increased, even though Minne built generous fires in the fireplace, and lit several braziers around the room. Of that time, Asa remembered the flames illuminating Tanja’s lined face, the murmur of her voice, the scent of magic and oil. His dreams lived on as well, more vivid than before. These fed the conversations, which in turn called up new memories of past lives. In between, she wrote, the script flowing onto the paper, while Asa watched in silence.

It was a midwinter day. The snow had been falling since dawn. Minne had closed the shutters. The flakes hissed against the wooden slats, and the room was like a warm glove around them.

“Asa.”

“Yes.”

“I am dying.”

She spoke so matter-of-factly it frightened him. Asa reached out, and she clasped his hand within both of hers. Slender hands, once strong, but now he could feel the bones beneath the wasted flesh.

“How do you know?”

“I dreamed it. I dreamed of buds unfolding and a thousand stars. Or you might believe my physician, who tells me to expect death before summer.” She closed her eyes a moment. The pulse at her throat betrayed a much stronger emotion than her voice. “You must go before then, Asa. No, do not argue. Please.”

He had no answer for that. He knelt at her feet, robbed of words for a very long while. Tanja Duhr did not speak either. It was a gift of hers, to make the silence as easy as their conversations. But then she had often told him that a poet must choose the spaces between words as skillfully as they chose the words themselves.

As the bells of Duenne rang the first evening hour, however, she stirred. “We have some more weeks and months together. Think about where you would like to travel next.”

He shook his head. “Do I have a choice? My mother wishes me home.”

“And perhaps you might go home—someday. Think about it, Asa. That is all I suggest.”

* * *

And so he considered his future, his desires, in between their conversations. Those intervals grew longer as her strength failed. Some days Minne came to his door, only to report that Tanja Duhr was sleeping, or with the physician. She would see him tomorrow, if tomorrow allowed it. Asa took to helping Minne with her work in keeping the books, paying bills, running errands into the city. But even as he worked he thought about the possibilities and impossibilities of his life.

Where might he go?

Not home. Not directly. Nor could he remain in Duenne.

Briefly he considered Károví, but although Erythandra and its former princedom had signed a truce, the borders remained unsettled.

So he climbed the steps to the roof, and, daring the winds, surveyed the surrounding lands, as if his gaze could penetrate the distance between Duenne and the borders. He could dismiss the north at once. He’d had enough snow. South lay the richest provinces of the Empire, those that traded in silks, coffee, and spices. Winter never touched those shores. No, he thought. The south would be too much like Ysterien. Farther along that southern coast was Fortezzien with its rocky mountains, goats, and houses painted in bright colors. But like Hanídos, the mood in Fortezzien was restless, and there were rumors of uprisings.

Which left east.

“What do you think of Tiralien?“ Tanja asked the next time she could receive him.

She sat propped against pillows, several pages covered with writing spread over her lap. Asa suppressed a start at her question. Minne must have told her about his visits to the roof, but how had she guessed the direction of his thoughts so precisely?

Because she knows me, she knows the Empire.

“It’s a pleasant city,” he said. “But I cannot find any reason to choose it over another.”

Silent laughter shook her. “What a demanding young man you are. Pleasant isn’t enough. You want a grand reason. What if I gave you a little reason?”

He shrugged, but she only laughed more.

“Stubborn.”

“It is my best quality.”

“It is.” Her tone, suddenly serious, caught his attention. “That is why I would suggest you visit my dear friend. His name is Linus Delf and he’s a scholar. I knew him from Court. He tired of the city and moved east to study in quiet.”

“And why should I visit him?”

“Because he is an interesting man. He studies ancient philosophy, but takes interest in a number of other subjects, including poetry.”

She went on to explain that Delf required an assistant to organize his books, transcribe his notes into readable documents, and to perform small tasks of research. “It would be a different kind of education than your tutors provided you. It should also give you enough money to live as you pleased. As long as you were moderate in what you pleased.”

And it would allow him time to consider his future.

He nodded. “I would like that.”

“Good.”

With the subject decided, she turned the conversation to a musician the Emperor had summoned to court. The musician, a young woman, had taken a lover almost at once, much to the displeasure of the Emperor, but it seemed that he’d forgiven her because of her astonishing talent. Asa knew little of court, but he listened to Tanja’s account, thinking that she seldom spoke of past lives or dreams these days. It was as though she’d left yesterday behind and held today in both hands.

He thought he understood how she felt. The last six weeks vanished all too quickly. Tanja Duhr wrote to her friend Linus Delf. He replied, saying he would welcome Asa as his assistant. Meanwhile, Asa set aside his pride with his mother and took her letter of recommendation to House Yasemîn. He did not intend to ask for much—enough to buy the horse Tanja recommended and a few sets of clothes—but that little was more than he could buy with his own money.

Narî Yasemîn received him in her formal offices. Servants brought hot, spiced tea and plates of grilled lamb, delicately seasoned bread, and other dishes Asa had not tasted since that last spring morning in Karda. He and the old woman who ruled House Yasemîn spoke of polite inconsequentials as they sipped their tea. Nothing of the Empire or Ysterien. Nothing of trade or money, or alliances between their houses. When they had done, a liveried servant brought Asa a small box. “It is but a first offering,“ Narî Yasemîn said. “If it is not sufficient, send word to my people.” Then she escorted him to the door herself and told him he was to consider himself a son of the household for as long as he remained in Duenne.

When Asa returned to his tiny room in Tanja Duhr’s household, he opened the box. And sucked in his breath. For a moment, he could do nothing but stare at the heap of gold coins inside. Slowly, he poured the coins onto the bed and counted them. He needed to count a second time to make certain of the sum.

Five hundred gold denieri. It was enough to buy two ships and all they could hold. Enough to establish himself anywhere, for as long as he liked.

I cannot accept this much.

He had to. To refuse would insult House Yasemîn. He shuddered to think of the consequences. His mother furious. A feud between the two houses, spreading to others through the net of alliances. Ysterien in disarray because of that, and susceptible to Veraene’s overtures, if not outright force.

In the end, he decided to keep the money. He would buy a horse. New clothes. All the supplies he needed for the journey east. Once he reached Tiralien, he could send whatever remained to his mother. If he were careful with his new salary, he could repay the rest.

And I shall repay her. However long it takes.

* * *

It was on a day in early spring when he took his leave. Tanja Duhr sat on the roof, swathed in robes. Asa had carried her there, at her request. The writing desk was not present. She did not have the strength to hold a pen. But she wished to sit in the open air and see the far horizons.

“I will miss you,” he said.

She kissed his hand. “You are a generous young man.”

“Liar.”

“No,“ she said softly. “I would have no lies between us.”

His heart stilled, and for a moment he could not speak. Then he leaned down and kissed her on the cheek. “Good-bye,” he whispered.

She leaned into his arms. “Good-bye.”

It took a great effort to pull away, to turn and walk toward the stairs. He glanced back just once to see her gazing south over the city, her chin lifted, her mouth pressed into a firm line. He would always remember her thus.

The rest followed quickly. His bags were already packed, his horse saddled. In addition, he had bought a pony to carry his supplies, along with several large leather packs, which Tanja Duhr had given him the previous day.

“Open these when you are with Linus," she told him, but would not explain more.

He traveled east beside the Galllenz River. His days were long, but he stopped frequently to rest his horse and pony. At night he stayed at inns, or with the occasional farmer, who offered him a room and dinner for a few copper coins. He found he hated the sight of stars. For all he knew, Tanja had died, and she had joined that river of souls.

Three weeks later he came to Tiralien’s gates. This time the guards did not question him. He passed through, and, following the directions from Delf’s letter, he soon came to a crowded quarter on the north side of the river called the Little University. There, Delf welcomed him to his quarters—five or six rooms that occupied the top floor of an old brick house, once a merchant’s household and now rented to students and scholars. Asa found himself with a comfortable room—much larger than his room in Duenne—that overlooked a noisy courtyard. If he leaned out his window, he could just see a patch of dark blue that could be the ocean.

He sat on his bed and considered his new life. Tanja Duhr had not misled him. Here he would have a true position and the chance to learn scholarship. He could repay his mother. His hands . . . he could not erase the bloody sheen, but he had come to realize that not everyone could see it. Zayaa had; so had Tanja Duhr. Linus Delf had not, or he had chosen to ignore it.

The gods have marked me. They did so before. I can rail against them, or go forward as I want or must.

Time enough for that later. He bent over the largest bag that contained Tanja Duhr’s last gift. He undid the buckles and unwrapped the leather straps. As he laid the covering flap to one side, a jumble of books met his eye.

Books? She gave me books?

They were all the same size—small thick volumes bound with dark brown leather, the pages sewn tightly to the spine. No titles etched onto the cover. Nothing to indicate what lay inside. He picked up the topmost one, skimmed the first few pages and went still. These were Tanja’s poems, written in her own hand. When had she found the time to record these?

Asa turned back to the first page and found a poem about the Empress Karin Emerita, one Tanja had composed after her arrival at court, nearly fifty years ago. The ink on the page was faded, and she’d crossed out several lines and rewritten them. Leafing through the book, he noted that she’d written and rewritten the poem several times over, with commentary in the margins for the intervening drafts. It was then he realized what kind of gift she had bequeathed him.

These are not copies. These are her original writings.

He set the book aside and took another from the pack. This one contained poems from several years later, after Tanja Duhr had established her place as the Empire’s reigning poet. Again, the pages were marked with lines struck out, corrections scribbled in the margins, and once, the notation, Rewrite. Cowardly poets do not thrive.

Asa read through the night, lighting candle after candle. He came to the years when Adele and the Empress’s poet had first met, the poems that inspired, and those from when they became lovers. Then came the ones from days and weeks after Adele left for the border.

. . . when you are gone, I feel more than absence. The moon dims. The summer warmth recedes. The air itself grows thin. . . .

Asa paused and laid the volume on the table, shivering. I loved her too much. I never understood how much she loved me as well.

It took him many, many moments before he could go on. Then, the revelations continued. The years after Adele died, the poems took on a formal tone. Grief, said his heart. She could not stop writing, but she no longer dared to write everything. The cowardly poet does not thrive. She had survived, yes, but he could tell those were not her strongest poems.

By dawn, he came to newer works, ones she’d clearly written in the past few months. The handwriting was not as firm, but there were far fewer corrections. She wrote, he thought, as if the words poured like water from her heart and mind.

. . . and so I join the great dance, the step and tripping step of lights across the galaxy, from void to void, from life to life. I ask you not to grieve. You will. I ask you to rejoice. You cannot now, but again, I say, you will. You will. Believe me in this one thing, beloved. . . .

Beloved. His heart paused, only to race forward, too fast for comfort. Perhaps later he could bear these words, as she claimed, but not yet. Not yet.

He took up the last book, telling himself he must read everything or he could not sleep that night. But this volume contained nothing except blank pages and a loose sheet of paper, folded and tucked underneath the cover. Asa took out the sheet and felt the prickle of magic as it unfolded.

You were once a guardian of the Empire. I ask you now, unfairly perhaps, to be the guardian of my words. One day we shall find each other again. —Tanja.

Underneath the letter was a rose petal, pressed and limp and nearly black, with a trace of its scent when he held it close.

 

Copyright © 2010 by Beth Bernobich
Illustration
© copyright 2010 by Matt Stawicki

21 comments
Dave Fried
1. Dave Fried
Wow. That just made my morning. I can't wait until October to pick up the novel!
Nick Rogers
2. BookGoblin
To Beth Bernobich: Thank you. I read many, many things. Rarely do I add them to my own soul. I will carry this one with me for the rest of my life.

And now, I will go and find every other story or poem you have ever published; and wait impatiently for the ones that you haven't yet.
Erin Hartshorn
3. ErinMH
A beautiful story! No wonder you were getting anxious about the date changing when it would go live.
Dave Fried
4. Book Junkie
I have never read something which so incredibly touched my soul, and with so few words. This is beautiful. I cannot wait to read this in full.
Estara Swanberg
5. Estara
Oh how lovely. It made me cry a bit but ends on such a note of hope.
Glenda Wilson
6. glinda
Oh, my. So very, very good. And another new author whose works I'm going to have to buy as soon as they come out - just what my budget needs. *wry*

Love the illustration, too - it reminds me, for some reason, of the cover of Martha Wells' Wheel of the Infinite; my copy isn't within reach, and neither Library Thing nor Amazon listed the cover artist for that.
Dave Fried
7. Mathew FM
That was absolutely beautiful. I have not felt such emotion in a long time. To say it touched me is truly an understatement. Thank you for this wonderful story. I will undoubtedly read this in full.
Ethan Glasser-Camp
8. glasserc
@2 basically said everything I wanted to, except in slightly more florid language than I would have used. This was amazing!

Ethan
Bob Blough
9. Bob
This is a wonderful story - the writing is supple and beautiful as Ms Bernobich's stories always are, but this time she captured something almost ethereal in the plot/characters that binded seemlessly with the exquisite writing. I am really looking forward to the novel!
Dave Fried
10. iamgriffin
wow. Just wow.
Dave Fried
13. ~ Sil in Corea
I am stunned. My heart is moved. My words are inadequate to express the elemental power in this story. Thank you!
J G
14. MindElemental
I really liked the worldbuilding in this story. Bonus points for making the hero from a commercial family!
Dave Fried
15. BarryD
Very nice - thank you for writing it, and letting us read it.
Dave Fried
16. DaveQat
Wow... That last paragraph has an amazing punch. I can't wait to read more Bernobich!
Dave Fried
17. Larry.Smithmier
Oh my!
Dave Fried
18. MrsBug
Wow, that was beautiful. Dulcet, bittersweet, and engaging.
Dave Fried
19. coolvstar650
Exquisite. My heart raced with Asa. Thank you.
Josh Matthews
21. jdm
That was absolutely beautiful. Thanks.
Dave Fried
23. Kaitlin Bluemel
A beautiful story. I cannot wait for July to continue my readings in this series. I have finished "Passion Play" as well. Your writings are beautiful and thought provoking, now among my favorites of all time. Thank you.

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