Sunlight crept down Whitewater City’s vast array of buildings, which rose like echoes of distant mountain peaks. There were so many. Atanar had been unable to stop craning his neck trying take in their scope and breadth. Some buildings were pointed spires; others were rounded and smooth. Upon the crest of a nearby hill, a massive, open-sided structure sat, visible only because Atanar was so tall and because the marketplace—called “the Eye” for some reason he had yet to understand—was positioned on another hill, to give the merchants and their customers such a spectacular view.
“Ged, it’s nearing supper time.” This came from Merti as she gathered up spools of silver instrument strings in their box. Selling had gone well today; most of the instruments they’d brought had been purchased.
Ged, who stood behind Atanar, tallying the day’s coins, glanced up, squinting in the light. “Aye. We’d best hurry.”
“Are you coming, then?” Merti asked softly.
Ged did not look at her as he counted the coins – again. By Atanar’s reckoning, he’d counted three times, though his gaze seemed distant. “I don’t think so, love,” he said at last.
To give the couple some space, Atanar turned away from them and picked up the now-empty wooden table and folded the legs flush against the bottom. The thing was of a clever design that made it easy to pack into the caravan. It wasn’t heavy, not to him, and after the first time he’d watched Ged struggle to heft it down the caravan steps, he’d taken on the task of loading and unloading the bulkier items. Otherwise, his role was something akin to guard duty – keeping close by and ensuring that no one decided the older couple would be easy prey.
Not that there was much of a danger of such a thing happening in this city. Whitewater City guards constantly patrolled the marketplace, though something about their watchful gazes did not make Atanar feel safe. Indeed, as he watched without trying to be obvious, a group of three city guards ambled over, their hands resting casually on their sword hilts when they looked at him.
A warning prickled the back of Atanar’s neck, but he took pains to seem as unobtrusive as possible while he began to fold the second table. On their way to Ged, the guards passed Atanar a little too close to be accidental. Annoyed and wary, Atanar set the second table with the first and tried to position himself closer to Ged. If the other man needed him, he wanted to be within easy reach.
Ged’s voice was calm. “Good evening, serlas.”
“And to you, ser,” the first guard, a young man from the sound of his voice. “You’re sixth tiers, aren’t you?”
“One of the other guards checked our marks this morning, before she let us set up.” Ged pulled back his sleeve to display his mark. Though Atanar had one of his own as of a month ago, he could not suppress a jolt of irritation at the way Ged had to offer up his arm, as if in tribute or sacrifice. Would such an act ever seem normal?
I hope not, Atanar thought with a grimace. Some things should never be “normal.”
The city guard gave Ged’s mark a cursory glance. “Right. So you’ve been here since dawn?”
“Aye, but we’re packing up now, as you can see,” Ged replied, still in that easy tone.
The guard made a show of squinting into the setting sun from beneath his helmet. “Cutting it a bit fine, eh?”
Ged shrugged. “We’ve been busy. Can’t exactly turn customers away – not if we want to eat tonight.”
Again, his words were easy, but Atanar did not miss the strain in his voice, nor the tension in his shoulders. Merti had stepped into the caravan to put the strings away, but she’d frozen in the doorway, blue eyes darting between her husband and the guards – and Atanar.
One of the guards, an older woman, nudged her companion’s armored side. “Don’t think that one needs any more food,” she said with a chuckle, nodding to Merti. “She’s as big as that wagon!”
Vorunn swam behind Atanar’s eyes and he had to grab the wagon wheel just to keep from lunging at the damned fool. One of the guards shot him a look probably meant to be a warning, but it only served to further prick his ire. Only the fear in Merti’s face made Atanar keep his silence – and his stillness.
But Atanar was alone in that stillness, for Ged’s hands tightened into fists and he took a step forward. The city guard who’d just spoken eyed him up and down. “You’ve something to say, dreg?”
“No, serla,” Ged said through clenched teeth.
“What about that?” she said, jerking her chin toward Atanar, who glared back.
“What about him?” Ged replied.
Her voice darkened. “Don’t know better than to let the barbarians run loose? Bad enough they run wild up north, attacking anything that moves; now they’re starting to trickle in from the borderlands. Did you know that, dreg? Or do you just like ’em big?”
“Shut it, Kasa,” the first guard snapped, causing the other two to stiffen. He sighed and glanced back at Ged. “You’ve accommodations for the night, I take it?”
“No, serla. Our ox is stabled outside the gates, but we usually sleep in the wagon.” The guard glanced between Atanar and Merti, then back to Ged, who cleared his throat. “Well, the lad has a hammock…”
The guard thumbed over his shoulder, in the vague direction of the city gates. “Well, then you must soon be on your way. No sixth tiers allowed in the city after dark, unless you’ve a room at an inn.”
At this, Merti peered out of the caravan, though she did not step down. She clutched a small cloth bundle Atanar did not recognize. “Yes, serlas,” she said. “We know, but I wanted to pay a visit to the–”
“I’m sorry, ser,” the first guard interrupted, though he didn’t sound sorry. “But rules are rules. You’re free to return tomorrow after sunup, but we can’t allow you to stay past sunset. Now,” he ignored the looks of frustration on both Ged and Merti’s faces, “we’re going to make another circuit through the Eye. When we return, I want you all gone. Is that clear?”
Both Ged and Merti stared at the guard for a long moment, long enough for Atanar to wonder if he should prepare to defend them. But at last, Ged’s shoulders slumped and he nodded, then looked away from the guards as they passed on without another word. Merti, too, was silent, hands twisting the hem of her tunic until the guards had gone.
Once they were out of earshot, Merti looked up at her husband. “If we hurry…”
“You’ll have to run.” Ged sighed again. “I’ll wait for you by the city gates. Take the boy; he’ll watch over you. Won’t you, Atanar?”
“Of course,” he replied immediately. “Where are we going?”
But Merti ignored him and stared at her husband. “Don’t you want to go?”
Ged was silent.
“You know what day it is?” Merti pressed, coming to stand at her husband’s side, touching a hand to his arm.
“Of course I sodding know,” Ged hissed, jerking away. “You think I could forget? I’ll never forget. But I can’t… I can’t handle that place now. Those Circle folk, and all those silly words. They don’t…” He trailed off, jaw clenching, blinking rapidly. “They don’t help.”
What in the fire and ice was going on? Atanar racked his brain for any argument the couple might have had recently, but could not think of anything. They bickered, of course, but always in a good-natured, familiar way that somehow set him at ease. Never had he seen either of them so…
“I’m sorry, Mert,” Ged said at last, touching her cheek. “It’s just…”
She gave him a sad smile and cupped her hand over his. “I know. And it’s all right. We’re different, you and I.”
“That we are.” Ged took a deep, shaking breath, and looked at Atanar. “You know the ironwood staff I just finished carving? It’s yours now. I know you can’t touch a blade, but I want you to be armed. This city isn’t friendly, sometimes. Close your mouth and don’t argue, son, just do as I say. Take the staff and escort Merti to the temple of the One, then back to the main gates. And hurry.”
Atanar bowed in the Aredian fashion. “What happens if we’re late?”
Ged’s face was stone. “Don’t be.”
The staff was a sturdy thing, pure ironwood, the tip carved into a spiral in a design like that of Ged’s viols. It was too fine an item for the likes of Atanar, but Ged had been…insistent. And, in truth, Atanar was glad to have a weapon of his own again. He relished its weight in his grip as he and Merti made their way through the city streets, toward the mighty temple on the hill.
Though the days were a little longer now, as spring had arrived to Aredia in earnest, the light was starting to wane by the time they reached the steps that led up the hill. This close, the temple of the Aredian god was even grander than from a distance, and Atanar found himself a little in awe of the huge structure, its marbled columns flecked with rainbow light.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Merti said as they began to ascend, her hand in the crook of Atanar’s arm. “There’s a huge crystal inside—as big as my fist, I swear—and when the light catches it, just so, it casts all these little bits of color around. Never seen anything like it.”
There was awe in her voice, along with a wistfulness that Atanar had heard before. He smiled down at her. “It is beautiful.”
She tugged his arm and they continued up the steps. They’d not taken ten paces when Atanar glanced up to see another guard hurrying down toward them, face shadowed by her helmet and the fading light. “I’m sorry, sers,” she said as she held up her hand in a signal for them to halt. “But the Nassors are at prayer, and have requested the temple be closed to outsiders.”
“Closed?” Atanar said, frowning. “But this is a holy place. How can it be closed?”
The guard dipped her head in a nod. “The Nassors are a second tier family, ser.”
Merti squeezed his arm. “Second tiers,” she murmured. “One step down from royalty.”
As if to illustrate, Merti nodded to the guard, who straightened. Upon closer inspection, Atanar noticed that her gear was fine plate metal edged with gold and polished to a silver sheen, engraved with all manner of symbols that held no meaning for him other than to remind him of the Circle priestess who’d given him his mark a month ago.
“What sort of balance is this?” he could not help but ask. “Are not all of you equal in the eyes of your gods?”
The guard’s helmet revealed her mouth and jaw; she bit her lip as if in hesitation before she said, “I’m truly sorry. I would let you in if I could. But I have my orders.” She spread her palm down toward the city. “Please, sers.”
Vorunn snarled. Atanar’s blood beat faster, but Merti only squeezed his arm again and nodded to the guard. “We’ll be on our way. Good evening to you, serla.”
The guard gave a relieved smile. “And to you, sers.”
Atanar turned with Merti, but when he glanced over his shoulder, he could not help but scowl at the guard who watched them go. Turned away from a sacred place because of one family’s desires. Madness.
“This entire country is foolish,” Atanar grumbled in Canderi as they slipped into full shadow, at the base of the steps.
Merti sighed. “It’s probably for the best. We wouldn’t have had long before we had to leave.” Her free hand gripped the little cloth bundle she’d brought. “I can make an offering next time.”
Before Atanar could reply, the sound of music tumbled toward them from down the street: jingling bells, drums, a lilting flute, Aredian voices raised in song. Atanar could not place the rest as anything other than rattles or the patter of wood against wood. Light crept around the corner; bright gold, like that of the sun, but from entirely the wrong angle and direction.
Atanar froze, one hand on Merti’s arm, the other gripping his staff, ready to spring to her defense. But to his consternation, she pushed passed him and hurried to the source of the light and music. He swore beneath his breath—a proper Canderi swear—and trotted in her wake. As he and Merti approached, more Aredians appeared as if out of thin air, all making a beeline in the same direction. Soon, Atanar found himself surrounded by a group of Aredians, none of whom shot him anything other than a glance as if to ensure they would not run him over.
The light strengthened; the music swelled. A group of Aredians of all ages, dressed in white robes embroidered with gold, bloomed into view, dancing their way down the street. Lanterns hung from the belts of some; others twirled blazing staffs and torches as if heedless of any danger from the fire. One played a merry tune on a flute while three more beat their palms against disk-like drums in their grips. All wore bells upon their shoes or around their wrists or braided in their hair, which added to the festal air. Save the flute player, all of them sang, though Atanar could not make out the words.
The procession halted only when it met the group of Aredians. Once they’d paused, Atanar realized that other Aredians had been trailing in the wake of the main group, clapping and singing along. The three groups mingled: the newcomers, the performers, and those who’d followed. The world was white and gold and music.
Atanar stood in the center of it all, too confused to do more than hold still and keep an eye on Merti. It was not difficult; she stood taller than all the women and most of the men, but no one seemed to notice – or care. In fact, he watched in astonishment as one of the singers embraced her fully, as if they were family. The singer—a woman a few years Merti’s junior—murmured in her ear, and Merti replied readily. They did not part for some moments, and when Merti pulled back, tears streaked her face. But she smiled.
Then Atanar’s vision filled again with fire and white and gold as more of the procession flowed around him. Disoriented, he whirled around, seeking a way out of the maelstrom, but he was surrounded. Vorunn clutched like panic at his heart and he longed to fight his way out, but he held the violent urge in check and tried instead to slip away unnoticed. At least, he tried until he saw the dark-skinned man.
Save a few anomalies, Canderi were by and large fair-skinned, blue eyed, and pale haired. Aredians were of a rainbow of colors, as Atanar had noticed in his travels, but never had he seen a man like this. Skin the color of fertile soil; eyes dark and liquid as the night sky. His smile was bright as the second moon. He was a drummer. The resonance from his instrument thrummed within Atanar’s chest, riveting the Canderi man in slack-jawed place.
“Who are you?” Atanar could not help but ask.
The drummer grinned and slapped the drum skein with the flat of his fingers. “I am of Amaranthea. We all are.”
Amaranthea. Atanar had heard the name before, but only in passing. He swallowed and glanced around at the others. “You are a follower of this goddess?”
“Indeed I am. We follow her light across the sky, from dawn until dusk. We begin and end our journey here, with the One.” The drummer rolled out another sound, louder and stronger than before, and the trilling flute answered in kind. “Who are you, my friend?”
Atanar’s own name died in his throat. He looked around again, at the laughing, dancing supplicants, then at his own hands. If he looked hard enough, he could see the blood. He did not belong here, in this place of laughter and light. He did not belong where there were good things. He was vorunn. “I’m no one.”
The crowd parted, revealing Merti much closer than Atanar had realized. She still stood with the singer, speaking with heads bowed. Atanar caught a few words. “…today,” Merti was saying. “He would have been entering his twentieth summer.”
Those words were not for Atanar’s ears, so he looked back at the drummer. But he heard the singer’s answer to Merti, anyway. “He will return. We will all return. It is the way of the One.”
The drumming stopped. A warm, strong hand clasped Atanar’s shoulder; he looked up, into those liquid dark eyes. “No, my friend. You are here.”
“I like to think so,” Merti said to the singer, though it was through tears.
“We will all return,” the singer said again. “There are a thousand lives to lead; he has moved on to another. Grieve for what you have lost, but try to take comfort in the knowledge that he will live on in your memory. The One will guide his spirit. And he will return. We will all return.”
The faces of those he’d slain returned to Atanar’s mind in an avalanche: Tikaani and his hope for the future; Kiluan and her passion for the present; Ruuk and his ferocity and loyalty. And Nel.
I’m so sorry, little brother.
Atanar only realized he’d dropped his staff when the drummer took his hand, touched his wet cheek, held their faces close. “He will return,” the drummer murmured in Atanar’s ear, his breath warm and smelling of honey. “We will all return.”
He embraced Atanar fully, not quite a lover’s touch, but not without familiarity. How long had it been since Atanar had been so close to another? He sank into the embrace, the strong shoulder, the scent of honey. Night would fall soon, but the sun shone right here, in this moment and the music swelled as the others around them took up the chant; the song they had been singing.
“We will all return.”