She didn’t nap. The few memories she had of her attempted escape kept her from even considering the idea, no matter how sleepy the heat made her. After what felt like an eternity, she sat up and noticed there were new trees that she’d never seen before surrounding the trail. They were oddly shaped, with gigantic flat leaves that went down the trunk in tiers. They were still short; nothing like the trees she had seen in the storybook, but it was nice to see some variety. She heard noises…people talking. She looked around and noticed that Doriel’s sword was hidden under the folds of his cloak. He also carried a bow and a quiver of arrows in one hand. Maple followed the path of his eyes, turning around in the process, and soon found herself looking at a large, walled city not very far off.
“Do you mind if I choose the inn for you?” Doriel asked Maple. She wondered if his uncertainty was due to what had been said earlier.
She shook her head. “No. Go ahead. I’ve never been outside Refuge, so I wouldn’t know where to start anyway.”
And then she remembered that, according to Doriel’s story, Refuge hadn’t always been her home. It was an odd feeling.
Doriel nodded, then tapped Callio on the back. “Juggler’s Gaffe.”
“Juggler’s Gaffe then,” he said, and urged the drameds to a slightly faster speed, presumably to catch up to the chance he still hadn’t realized he’d never had.
“It’s probably for the best,” Doriel said. “My presence would have ruined any negotiations, and drameds aren’t the best choice once we travel north of the city.”
“What are we using?”
“Horses. More versatile and useful in the northlands. Also more expensive. As long as I’m not there, Callio will make up the difference.”
“A reason he’s a merchant, I suppose.”
“Does he know this city well, then?”
Tired of his brief responses, Maple decided to try a different approach. “So, do you know this city any better than him?”
“All right. Prove it.” She walked further ahead of him and turned around, facing him while she walked backward. “Why does Oasis have baths but Refuge doesn’t?”
“A large aquifer underneath the city supplies the water for what was once a public oasis and keeps the baths full. The public oasis became a source of many battles and was eventually taken over by a powerful merchant who created the city Oasis as a means of allowing many access to water at a profit and without the battles that meant no one got any water at all. The city is now a staple of the trade route and holds many kinds of people.”
Maple was impressed. “Who did you hear that from?”
“I read it.”
“Oh.” She faced the city again, unsure what to say. She knew where the baths had come from because it had been part of an argument between two merchants who were heading into a tavern. But now that Doriel had said he’d read it in a book, somehow that seemed more accurate than the gossip of merchants.
Perhaps taking her silence as a sign he should continue, Doriel said, “I’m certain the book can be found in the city itself, if you’d like to see it.”
And look at the pictures? she almost said. But somehow the thought of telling him she didn’t know how to read caused a deep shame to well up inside her. “Maybe. If we have time.”
“Perhaps we shall. In the meantime, I have a book that might be of more value to you at this moment than the history of a city of the Southlands.” And from under his cloak, he produced a small, tattered book and held it out to her. She took it and opened it up, as if she could understand what all the squiggles, dots, and lines meant.
“Interesting,” she said, because that was what she’d heard people say who were looking at a book. She turned the pages, then stopped when she saw a picture of an elf sitting in front of a dragon. Stopping, she turned some more and saw a picture of a person looking in a pool of water, his eyes wide in horror and his hands tugging at the skin of his face. This was a story she had never heard before.
It took a moment to realize Doriel was watching her, and that he knew very well what those images meant. Thinking fast, she remembered that only children’s stories had images in them (yet another item she had overheard in the market). “Why do you have a book for children?”
“It’s the only book I’ve found that has this particular story.”
She turned the pages and found the human again, yet this time he was gaining the features of an elf, and she realized the human who had been staring in the pool was the elf transformed into a human. But now, in this picture, he was happily reaching toward a young elven woman, who must have been his lady-love, given her beautiful clothes and jeweled circlet on her head.
Turning more pages, she found pictures of kings, of wars between elves and men, of great castles and forests and an enormous mountain, taller than any of the others by it. None of it meant anything to her. Closing the book, she said, “It’s very interesting. I’ll have to look at it later.”
“Which story did you find most interesting?”
Were servants supposed to question their masters like this? But the thought of Doriel being her servant grated on her nerves worse than thinking he might find out she couldn’t read. “The one where the elf is turned into a human, I suppose.” Given she couldn’t understand the stories behind the other pictures enough to figure out what was going on, that one seemed her best bet at keeping her secret.
“Really?” Doriel seemed both pleased and doubtful. “Why that story?”
“Oh, because it has a happy ending.” Did the others have happy endings? She couldn’t tell, but guessed they didn’t.
“What was your favorite part?”
Had she turned the pages too quickly? Was that why he was asking all these questions? “We’re getting close to the city.” She hadn’t noticed how many people were around them until now.
“Yes, we are.”
His tone made her nervous. Had he figured it out? Her thoughts were quickly jumbling together and she said the first thing that made any sense instead of keeping her mouth shut, which made far better sense. “It’s the moment when the elf realizes he’s human. I mean, he’s writhing in agony at the thought of never being an elf again, yet he feels a certain amount of hope that the dragon will show him mercy.”
She glanced at Doriel to see if her bluff had worked. He stared at her, clearly not expecting such a well-thought out answer. He nodded slowly and focused on the road ahead. “You don’t know how to read, do you?”
Maple felt her cheeks grow hot. There was nothing she could say that would convince him otherwise. What she’d said was all she could figure out and if she said anything more it would only embarrass her further.
“There’s no shame in it,” Doriel said. “I imagine it wasn’t the most useful skill to you, or you were purposefully kept from it. Reading is a key that unlocks many doors that others might want closed as long as possible.”
Still ashamed, she kept walking.
“Would you like to learn?” Doriel asked so meekly, she almost laughed.
She did, but a small part of her pride rebelled. “I’ve gotten by just fine without knowing how to read. People talk, and there are pictures in most stories–”
“Forgive me, mistress, but you just proved the limitations of that approach. If you can’t read the words, you don’t know if you’re understanding the story correctly.”
Maple sighed. She did want to learn. “What did I get wrong?”
“Not that much.” He smiled, but there was a sadness to it that surprised her. “The book I gave you also contains your ancestors’ history. In order to understand what lies in the future, it’s best to understand how the present relates to the past. And though rumor and hearsay can, at times, be accurate, it’s best to know not only what people say now, but what they said long ago. Patterns emerge when the long view is taken, and patterns reveal truth. Once truth is learned, mistakes can be avoided.”
What did he mean? Was he talking about their current enemy, or was he telling her he didn’t want her to make the same mistakes her ancestors did?
Perhaps the only way she’d find out would be to accept his offer. “And the only way to do this is to learn to read?”
“Not the only way, but the most effective one.”
Maple frowned. “All right. But after we’re done here.” And after you’ve slept, she thought, though she had to admit he didn’t look as bad as she might if she’d gone as long as he had without even a nap. She looked up at the crennalated mud-cement walls of Oasis and felt a chill in spite of the heat. “How long will it take to find the man you’re looking for?”
“Not long. I heard he’d become an actor after the last battle,” Doriel murmured, pressing his hat a little more firmly down around his ears, and she noticed he was watching the guards standing on either side of the entrance, surrounded by people.
Merchants crowded around the entrance, some waving papers to get attention, others with a lambskin or a clay tablet with orders written on it. Doriel sighed. “They’ve changed the regulations since I was here last.” His eyes began scanning the crowds. Finally, he found the person he was looking for. He approached a tall guard with a short spear clumsily tucked in the crook of one arm and the other full of papers. He jumped, as if startled by the two strangers.
“Hello, we would like to enter,” Doriel said.
“Get in line,” the guard snapped back.
“We have no merchandise,” the elf explained. “We’re here to meet someone.”
The guard practically shouted as he walked away, “Then what are you talking to me for?” He gestured toward a small door where a sleepy guard slouched against the wall had his helmet dropped over his face and turned his attention back to the impatient throng.
“Come on,” Doriel said, tucking his cloak wrapped sword under his bow arm. He tugged lightly on Maple’s sleeve and headed for the door. The guard looked up at them before pulling a small switch behind him. The door swung open and the two travelers darted inside. Maple felt as if the guard’s eyes had marked them both as they entered the city’s teeming streets.
The sooner they found his friend, the better.
Maple had never seen a town this busy. Colorful banners and images of various trades lined the streets in front of wooden stalls. Makeshift stages took up space here and there between the stalls, the actors performing to crowds that grew and dissipated, always moving on to something else.
“This might explain the crowds outside,” Doriel said.
“What is it?”
“To celebrate what?”
He looked around a little more. “The end of the war,” he said, his gaze lingering a few moments on the image of a fiery bird with a sword through its chest.
“Ah. It’s good we’re sticking around then.”
For a moment, he looked at her as if she were insane. Then, a faint smile lit up his face.
“Come on,” he said, taking her hand. “Let’s see if we can find the man.”
They worked quickly, moving from stage to stage. Doriel only asked at one. The reaction was cool, to put it mildly, and since they both agreed it was best to keep their faces in the dark as much as possible, it was decided that he would keep in the background just enough to be helpful, while Maple would be the one asking. His decription was brief, and she hoped it was still accurate. “Tanner Elvenkind?” she would ask. “Red hair, tall, skinny as a rail, tends to be very good at bird calls?”
The last one would usually get a smile, but most of the troupes either knew of him, but weren’t sure if he were in Oasis at this time of year, or had no idea who the man was in the first place.
In the process, Maple learned that acting troupes traveled a lot during the summer, only coming back to their home theater in the fall and winter. And sometimes the actors didn’t return at all, for many reasons, not all of them sinister. “So,” she said as they headed toward the Juggler’s Gaffe with the best information she could find, “it could be he’s still out in the countryside. Some of the troupes don’t keep up with the others at all, but the ones who do haven’t heard of him coming back yet, even though the rest of the troupe is here.”
“We’ll ask after we’ve rested.” He paused and glanced at her. “Thank you.”
“Well, we have to find out more somehow.” She thought of the light and tried not to. “The sooner we can get this over with, the better.”
Doriel’s steps slowed and his eyes focused on something in the crowd.
“What?” Maple asked, trying to look as well without being obvious about it.
He shook his head. “I thought I saw…come on. I think I have the solution to our problem.”
Master Callan was what he had once been called. Maple watched him guzzle a pint of beer in between bites of bread and lentil soup with a meat she’d rather not ask about but that looked very unfamiliar to her. Probably something northern. “Tanner, eh?” he said, taking another bite. “No, I haven’t seen him in a month. Left town. I think?”
Doriel wasn’t happy about this. She could tell from his silence and the way he kept looking over Callan’s shoulder at the wall behind him. “Then I’ll ask you what I would have asked him.”
Callan chuckled and took another chug of beer, wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve. “Elf like you asking the likes of me? Didn’t think that would ever happen, eh?”
Doriel leaned forward. “I need to ask about the Death of the Phoenix.”
Callan stilled. “Ah. Because of her?” He jerked his chin in Maple’s direction.
Doriel said nothing.
“I saw it right off, you know,” he said to Maple. “You’re the spittin’ image of your mother, right down to her—” He paused. “But no. You’ve got your father’s eyes, after all.” And some of his good mood faded.
“Is the Phoenix truly dead, Callan?” Doriel’s voice was like ice.
“You didn’t believe we could kill him before,” Callan said, reluctantly looking away from Maple. “Why would you change your mind after the deed?”
“Because I’m not sure the deed was ever done.”
“You see them celebrating out there. Why’s it matter now? Twelve years later, and not a word. Isn’t that proof enough?”
“No. I need to know for certain.”
“So you can make sure it’s really her that’s in charge, eh?”
“So I can make sure she’s safe.”
“Because you cared ever so much for that before,” he sneered.
It was the first time she’d seen anyone from her father’s army speaking to Doriel, and the contempt, she had noticed, was barely concealed. “You want to know more about this upstart, eh?” he said to Maple. “First, don’t trust him. He’s not a liar. Never will be. But you ask him to save you or help you and it’s a roll of the dice if he decides to step in, oath or not.” His sneer grew. “We hung ourselves on those oaths, all of us. And he was too much of a coward to pick up the sword and deliver the killing stroke. Even after that supposed—”
The dagger almost seemed to materialize under Callan’s neck, and it was held so casually that it was difficult to tell at first that Doriel had it in just the right position to kill if need be.
“Well of all things to be upset about,” Callan whispered, looking at Doriel as if he’d never seen him before in his life.
“The answer. Now.”
A twisted smile grew on Callan’s face. “Well, if you’re willing to finish the job, you’re too late. The Phoenix will never rise again.”
“The reason why or do you want to know the details after all this time? Hushweather didn’t tell you, even when you were both in the Keep?”
Doriel’s eyes widened slightly, and Maple realized he’d been caught off-gaurd.
“As for the first, you know very well why, and as for the how, well, this ain’t the best place to be telling it, is it?”
“I think it’s the very best place.”
“Even for you?”
“Especially for me.”
Callan’s twisted smile grew. “Beheaded and torn to pieces and the pieces were burned and the bones destroyed with a final spell using a bit of elven witchcraft to keep the dead from coming back to life.”
“I was the one who hacked him to pieces. Tanner was the one who cut off his head. Hushweather was the one who stabbed him in the back and he was the one who used the talisman and burned the bastard until he was nothing but dust.”
“What about everything he wore?”
Callan leaned back and Doriel’s dagger went back into a place Maple couldn’t see. “Exploded in fiery pops and blasts. Put up quite a show. I’m surprised you didn’t even want to see it.” He turned to Maple. “Your father was most prepared. Just didn’t expect his oath to be weaker than it was.”
He put his arm on the table. “Can’t see it. Never could. But the spell was here in the wrists. Like chains day and night. He called, you answered, no matter what else you were doing. Didn’t make us puppets, though. He didn’t figure on that until it was too late. For all of us.”
And Maple swore she could see the beginnings of tears in his eyes. But he closed them and drank long and deep from his beer. After he finished, he set the tankard carefully on the table. “I have no proof to offer you, elf. None. It was all burned up at the river. A true phoenix at the very end, except he didn’t rise. And if you don’t believe me, I can’t help you.”
Doriel looked at the table, then sighed. “Thank you.”
“No, thank you, master elf. For the food, for the drink, and for the knowledge.” He glanced in Maple’s direction and somehow the look in his face made her uneasy.
Given what she’d seen outside and what she’d heard now, it looked like she was right to just live her life in peace and quiet.
“What was the spell?”
“The talisman? Oh, I don’t know. Hushweather found it in your father’s tower once. Better to ask him, if you dare.” And Callan’s grin made it clear that was probably the last thing they should do.
“I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you.” He paused. “Thank you.”
They left Callan still munching on his bread. Maple turned back and saw him watching them, going back to his food as if he hadn’t been staring after them. She didn’t like that at all. “What was he?” she asked. “I mean, besides a murderer.”
Doriel stopped. “I don’t agree with what they did.”
“Why not? If he was as awful as it seems he was,” she nodded toward the phoenix with the sword in its chest, “why don’t you agree?”
His jaw tightened. “We need to find Tanner.” He began walking again. “Callan was a general.”
“Him?” She turned around in shock only to see that Callan was leaving, going back to the street corner where they’d found him begging for food.
“Hard to believe, but yes. He was one of a small handful left after the war killed most of the ones originally in charge. Officers were promoted who’d barely had any time in the field of battle, whether or not they had talent. Tanner was one of those so promoted, but he was also one of the ones who deserved it. Though he’d argue otherwise.”
Doriel and Maple walked to the theater where Tanner Elvenkind stayed when it was the off-season. The woman in charge said he hadn’t been feeling well for the past month. “Had a terrible time sleeping. And last night was the worst. Nightmares about blood and evil voices and such.”
“That’s awful,” Maple said, and meant it.
“Yes, well, he was a soldier a long time ago.” And the look on her face made it clear Maple was not to ask any questions about which side he was on. She admired that, and it made her think more highly of Tanner as well.
“I imagine it must have been hard for him, putting his life back together.”
“It is if you have no direction. But thankfully he’d never cared much for soldiering. The moment he could put his sword down, he did, and we’ve been glad to have him ever since.”
Maple thanked her, including her suggestion not to bother the poor man while he was having trouble. She told all of it to Doriel and he said, “Then it would be best to leave him alone and go our way. Thank you for humoring me, mistress.”
“Not at all.” She’d somewhat enjoyed this. It felt good, in a way, to find out more about the world she’d come from. And to appreciate that it was now gone entirely.
Though she still didn’t like the way Callan had looked at her. It was as if he were looking at something evil, something to be destroyed. But it had been so brief, perhaps she’d just imagined it.
The crowds grew thicker, and Maple realized they were heading toward a large stage in the city square. Some of them were exclaiming, “Oh, really?” and “After all this time!” and once she’d thought she’d heard the name Tanner Elvenkind.
Doriel would know. “Did you just—”
But Doriel was already heading along with the crowd who, to her relief, didn’t look too closely at who was walking among them. They were too focused on the stage in front of them. “I thought he was still traveling,” one said. Another, “He’s had some bad health lately, I’ve heard. Couldn’t perform.” The crowd jostled, becoming thicker. One woman bumped into her, gave a brief apology, and Maple realized she’d lost Doriel in the crowd.
Panic began to take over. She couldn’t see him. Couldn’t call for him. That would attract too much attention. Might, anyway. Where was he? She jumped to see if she could spot him up ahead.
She turned around and saw Callan looking up at her, squinting in the high morning sun. “He left you again?”
She didn’t want to think about what those words meant. “He went ahead.”
“Yes, to find Tanner, right? Because that’s who you’re waiting for. I can take you there just fine, if you like, mistress.”
There was an oily tone in his voice she didn’t like. “No. Thanks.” She began to walk away.
A cold hand wrapped around her wrist and she turned to see Callan following her. “Won’t take but a second. I can show you right where he is. He’s not on stage yet. That’s why the crowd is getting so thick.”
She looked ahead and noticed that it did seem like the crowd had begun to press together fairly tightly.
“Doriel don’t know crowds,” Callan said, giving her arm a small tug. “Never had to deal with them much when I knew him. Coward. This way.”
She thought of how easily he’d pulled a dagger on Callan, as if it were nothing. She thought of how he’d looked when they’d escaped the guild and how easily he seemed to handle the chaos. “Why call him a coward?”
“Because he’d rather run than fight. Ain’t that’s what’s happening now? Running, running, no fighting. No facing what’s up ahead. Just running.”
“In the guild, you always tried to know whose territory you were on. That’s all he’s doing now.”
“Not fast enough, though.” She didn’t like how his breath had begun to quicken, along with his steps. He was too eager. This was wrong.
She yanked her hand from his grip. “Thanks. I’ll wait for Doriel.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he sneered. “Did I insult your precious elf? The one who left you for dead? And you won’t trust the one who helped kill an evil infecting the whole land?”
She didn’t turn away, but she didn’t move any closer either.
“We all loved you, you know, all of us. What we did, we did for the whole land, but also for you and your mother. And you won’t even trust us. You’ll trust the elf who wouldn’t lift a finger to help, even when we begged for him to use his magic.”
“He uses it now.” And she turned and walked back into the crowd to find him.
“No,” she heard him say behind her, soft and low. Then, in a near-wail, “No—no—no.” He snatched her hand and this time lifted her up off the ground. Amazed at his strength, she twisted, trying to get out of his grip.
“Put me down!”
“Oh, no, no, child. You’re going back where you belong. Back with the lot of you, and I’ll finally be free of this curse.”
“Let me go!” Curse. He meant the oath. Maybe reasoning with him? “I can set you free of that.”
He barked a laugh. “You don’t know enough magic to light a fire. Much obliged, but don’t make promises you can’t keep.”
She got one hand free and jammed her fingers into his throat. He gave a hideous hacking sound but let her go enough for her to twist away and force herself through the crowd that had begun to give them some room. “My daughter!” he cried out, still recovering from her attack. “Stop her! She’ll go to ruin!”
The crowd closed itself off and one man grabbed her arm. “Let me go!”
“What’s he mean?” the man said, giving her a stern look that, for anyone else, might have stopped them.
“If she’s your daughter,” someone in the crowd said, “then I’m your infant son, Callan.”
Callan froze at the sound of that voice. “She is!”
“Liar.” And out of the crowd stepped a man with bright red hair, short and curly. A few freckles covered his nose and beard had just begun to grow in, lighter than his hair but not enough to hide his cold smile. “I thought you were better than that.”
And then she noticed the man had a drawn sword. He turned to her. “Do you want to go with him?”
She shook her head emphatically.
“Why not ask if he’s her father?” someone from the crowd said.
“Do you really think she is? Look at him: hooked nose, gouty feet, and the air of a man too desperate to be gone and not for the shame of his daughter, either. Over here,” he pointed with his sword at Maple, “under all that dirt are high cheekbones, a nose with absolutely no sign of a hook anywhere near it, and the look of a girl who isn’t quite sure what has just happened, but will fight to stay true to her course. No,” and he took a step closer to her, studying her intently. “Her parentage is not anywhere near the same as his. And he knows it.”
Callan paused, then tried to run, but the thick crowd closed in. She heard some murmurs and looked to see everyone watching intently. As if it were a show.
“So tell me, begger,” the man said pointing his sword once more at Callan, “who are you really?”
“You wouldn’t do this,” Callan said so quietly, she almost didn’t hear him. “Not to me.”
The man’s face hardened. “There was a story told not nearly long enough ago of living shadows.”
A chilll came over the crowd, and she felt everyone move in closer.
“The shadows would creep into people’s homes, into their very thoughts, and search for darkness among the pure people. Not just any, but a certain kind, the kind that would be a danger to the Corellion.”
The silence was so deep, she couldn’t even hear a breath.
“And the shadows, it was said, would take any darkness they found away. Widows would cry over their missing husbands, sisters over their brothers, but it had been as if they had never existed. The crown wouldn’t search for them. The Rangers dismissed them and went back to their games of war, until the shadows had become so numerous that even they feared for their own lives. No one was safe. It’s said that the living shadows died when the Corellion did. But no magic ever completely dies, now does it, Callan?”
Callan’s terror faded and he snarled. “You’d do this to me?”
“I’d do this to any coward. She doesn’t want to go with you. She doesn’t have to. That’s what you fought for, isn’t it?” And the man sheathed his sword and turned away.
“You don’t even care,” Callan said as the man began walking toward Maple. “I saved everyone! And no one bloody cares!”
The man closed his eyes, as if some promise or trust had been torn apart. Callan gasped, eyes wide. “No, no, no, no, no. I didn’t. I didn’t mean it. It wasn’t me.”
“Behold!” the man cried out to the crowd. “The effect of giving oneself to evil!”
Callan screamed, his hands twisting and clenching, his body contorting as if he were a piece of paper in a fire.
“All those who seek darkness,” Tanner said, his voice projecting over Callan’s screams, even though he wasn’t shouting, “shall find it. For darkness is always waiting.”
Callan’s scream turned into a snarl and he leaped at Tanner with a strength no human, even in better health, could have possessed. Tanner stood without flinching as Callan seemed to sail through the air, hands that had become claws stretched out, eyes wide with fury.
A streak of light pierced Callan through the shoulder, knocking him back and away with a shriek. Two more pierced him before he hit the ground.
Silence, and in that silence, the man’s voice rang out. “So ends all those who seek darkness hoping for light.” He stepped into the middle, ignoring the faint wheezing from Callan. And then Callan disappeared. “A round of applause for the mask, Callan Swiftblade!”
Two small explosions appeared behind the man, forming swirling columns of smoke and flame that hid Callan’s body. The audience cheered. “Hooray, Tanner Elvenkind!” more than one shouted.
“Thank you,” he said, bowing. “But it was our newcomer Callan who carried off this performance today.”
A touch of a hand on her shoulder made her wheel around. It was Callio, looking very worried. “Where’s Doriel?”
She shook her head and turned back to the man they’d been looking for. He didn’t look tired, or worn. At least, not until he looked at her again as the crowd dispersed. Or was that wariness in his eyes. Turning around, he walked toward a nearby alley, the smoke hiding him. “Come on,” she said to Callio.
“If he were here, he’d want to speak to him.” And after his questions for Callan, she knew what she needed to ask.
She entered the alley to see him crouched down, looking at Callan, still wheezing. “Why?” she thought she heard the old man say.
“I should be asking you the same.”
“The oath,” she heard him whisper. “He was going to free me from the oath.”
“You know who,” Callan growled, then coughed. “Don’t get smart.”
Tanner stood and waved them forward, never looking back. “Are you saying you lied to her?”
Callan saw Maple and said nothing.
“You can’t be lying to her because I saw him dead, same as you. So that means someone has taken over his magic somehow.”
Callan shook his head. “Only a Corellion…commands.”
“He’s not got too much longer,” Tanner murmured. He turned and began to walk away.
Maple looked at Callan, who reached out to her. “Please. Forgive me. I was only trying to keep you safe.”
She turned to Tanner. “Aren’t you going to help him?”
“What? Get well enough to betray you again?”
Maple walked toward Tanner, grabbing him by the arm. “You can’t just leave him here.”
Tanner studied her. “Why not? No one’s going to look for him. No one cares, except maybe you. What, are you willing to forgive him for trying to kidnap you and take you to—” He looked back at Callan. “Where were you going to take her, anyway?”
Callan looked away.
“Nowhere good, at least,” Tanner said, turning back to Maple. “Better to let him die and face the one he thought would help him.”
“No.” Maple surprised herself at the force of her words. She also surprised Tanner, who stopped. “He could make too much noise.”
“Then you should kill him now.”
It made sense. But something about felt…wrong. “No. That would be too good for him.”
Tanner smiled as if amused. “Would it? Then what sort of punishment would you, O Mighty Heir, give? And mind, he’s a traitor. Very dangerous.”
Maple said nothing, unable to think of anything.
Tanner chuckled. “Now this, I didn’t expect, not given the way you look.” He turned back to Callan, and his eyes widened. Maple turned just in time to see Callio reach out toward Callan, who, dagger in hand, slit his own throat. Blood poured through the streets.
“No.” At first, she thought Tanner had said it, but Doriel pushed past.
“And so ends that part of the brotherhood,” Tanner said, watching as Doriel slowed, then stopped in front of a now dead Callan.
“Did he tell you anything?” Doriel asked, turning toward Tanner.
“No, ‘hello’ or ‘I loved you in Sniggard’s Revenge’?”
To her great surprise, the two clasped hands and a faint smile played around Tanner’s mouth. “There’s no time for pleasantries,” Doriel said.
“There never is.” He turned back to look at Maple. “Given what happened, I think it might be wise for you to leave the city.”
It was Doriel who answered. “Agreed. Callio?”
“Four horses, just as you asked.”
“Four?” Tanner said, eyebrows rising. “You’re making an assumption there, aren’t you?”
Doriel only turned back to Maple. “I suggest we head further north, mistress.”
Tanner’s smile faded. “Toward Halion’s kingdom?”
“One of the three is gone. I need to know what exactly was used, unless you happen to remember.”
Tanner shook his head. “I only know it was elven. Hushweather said he’d gotten it from the tower after one of the times—when they had words.”
Maple’s thoughts turned over what she’d heard. “If he took something, why didn’t my fa—”
“Why didn’t anyone notice it was gone?” Tanner said quickly, looking a little pale. “He had many, many items in the tower, most of which he never bothered to use. Toward the end, I doubt he saw anything but shadows.”
“Let’s go,” Doriel said. “At the very least, we need to talk in a space where no one else can hear.”
Tanner hesitated, then gave Maple a hard stare. “All right. I’ll meet you outside the walls.” And without another word, he left.
Doriel hurried back to Callan and snatched three arrows out of his body. Looking them over, he took out a cloth from inside his leather armor and wrapped them up before placing them under his arm. “Horses, Callio?”
Callio shook himself, and Maple realized he’d been staring at Callan’s dead body. “Yes. Yes. This way. Two are being used to pull the wagon, but the other two can be ridden or—”
Maple had seen dead bodies before. It happened more often then she’d like to remember, finding one here or one there along the streets of Refuge. But the look in Callan’s eyes before he’d used the blade…it reminded her too much of Handlee’s face before he’d drunk the bottle that killed him.
And she hoped more than ever that her father really was dead.
They walked quickly through the streets to a stable where they each got a horse and one more besides, each of them fitted with saddlebags. Doriel didn’t want her learning how to ride on busy city streets, so Callio went ahead with the wagon while Doriel and Maple headed toward the same gate as before. “You’ll circle the walls from the west entrance,” he told Callio before the merchant left, “and we’ll go through the north and meet you on the road.”
The crowd had begun to thin by the time they reached the wall and walked through. A handful of merchants were the only ones dealing with the guards, and a man stricken with the plague went from merchant to merchant, begging alms until the guard began to unsheath his sword, at which point the beggar scurried away, keeping an eye on the guard from a safe distance.
Maple looked around outside the wall and spotted Callio, driving along the trail to the Northlands.
“We’ll walk along,” Doriel said, “until we’re out of sight of the city. Then we’ll get in the back again.”
“Hey you,” someone called out from behind. They turned, and Maple saw it was the same guard from earlier that day, the one who had stared at her as she’d passed. Doriel stayed put, wary.
Maple braced herself.
The guard walked up to them quickly but carefully, as if he were picking his ground. Doriel must have sensed this because he moved to stand in front of Maple, almost completely blocking her from the approaching guard.
The guard pointed at the sword Doriel now wore on his hip and the bow slung on his back. “Who did you go to see?” he demanded.
Doriel’s answer appeared to have annoyed the guard. “Can’t let you leave until you’ve registered your visit.”
Doriel frowned. “I hadn’t heard of such a thing before.”
The guard paused and Maple knew he was stalling. “New regulation. Should have declared it when you first arrived.” Maple started to look around them. She saw a small movement on the wall above them.
“I’m sorry,” Doriel said, and Maple wondered why he was taking time apologizing instead of running. “I didn’t know about this regulation when I first entered. Do you have the necessary paperwork?”
The guard shook his head. “You’ll have to come with me.” And he gestured toward the guard house. Once out of sight, if he saw the blood on Doriel’s arrows, she might never see him again.
Trying to sound like an exasperated aristocrat, she said, “I’m afraid I must ask you to let my servant go,” she was already turning Doriel around. “We’re already late getting back to Halion’s castle and if he finds out you kept us here after we’d been robbed, he’ll have your head.” Before she could see if the guard bought it or not, she grabbed Doriel and hurried away. “You there!” she called out to Callio. “I require your wagon!” And they both began to run.
“Stop or I shoot!” the guard behind said. Then, “Hey, get out of here!”
“Alms for the poor?”
Doriel grabbed Maple by the arm. “We need to go back.”
“But there was a–”
“I know.” His smile calmed her. “It’s all right.”
They both walked back toward the guard who was now lying on the ground, the beggar pawing him.
“Go on,” Doriel said with a half-hearted wave of his hand, then to Maple, “Make sure he’s all right. I’ll go get the ‘wagon you required’.” He ran toward Callio with a lope that Maple thought was perfect for a servant who wanted to make sure his recently-robbed aristocratic lady had a ride along the trail to the Northlands. More than a little bothered by two attacks in the course of one day, she bent down and looked at the guard’s face. He was still breathing, but his face was pale and his eyes were glassy. On a hunch, she inspected him a little closer. In his hand was a dart near the wrist. She removed it and palmed it carefully. The last thing she needed was to get poked by the thing. She stood up just as another guard approached.
“What happened!” he called out as he hurried over.
“I’m not sure,” she replied. “He was trying to talk to us about paperwork, then collapsed. It looks like he’s exhausted.”
The guard looked him over, then sighed. “It’s his own fault. Asked to do a double shift.”
The beggar came closer and tried to paw the body again. The guard impatiently kicked the wretch away as he approached. “Go back to the camps or I’ll gut you here.” To Maple he said, “I’ll take him inside.” He grabbed the body under the shoulders. “What kind of paperwork did you need?”
“Oh, he already had it,” she lied easily. “Just wanted to make sure.”
The guard nodded and dragged the man back to the post. Maple looked up at the top of the wall briefly, took note of the fact that there was no one up there now, and hurried over to Callio who had stopped the wagon. The beggar followed her.
“Alms?” he queried as Maple got in.
“Shouldn’t have a plague-stricken beggar so close to the wagon,” Callio muttered.
“Depends on the beggar,” Doriel said. “And besides, on a journey such as ours, if we wish to retain the High God’s blessing, it would be wise to treat all his children with dignity.” To the beggar, he said, “Where are you going?”
Callio turned and stared at Doriel. “You’re letting him in the wagon now?”
Callio’s face turned a shade of bright pink before he turned back around so that he was facing away from all of them.
“I can come?” the beggar asked, then looked at Maple as if asking for permission.
The heat trickled down the beggar’s face, and she thought, in one of the paths it had made, that she could see a freckle. And when she looked closer, she realized he had bright blue eyes and that if he stood straighter, he’d be much taller. “Of course you can.”
She gingerly moved over to a very uncomfortable looking space to the left of where she usually sat. The beggar looked truly touched and, with tears in his eyes, brought her hand to his lips. Maple stammered a “thank you,” not sure what else to do. She shouldn’t have worried. The beggar laid down and quickly fell asleep.
When she turned to look at Doriel, he looked very pleased at this turn of events. And she couldn’t help looking away, feeling very happy that he was pleased as they left Oasis.
Maple clapped and laughed. Doriel smiled, something he hadn’t expected to do again for many years.
“And for my next trick,” Tanner said, holding up the cloth he’d used to take off his makeup, each hand grasping a corner. He turned it back and forth to show each smudge, then flicked it, singing, “Abru!”
The cloth became sparkling white, even in the growing dusk.
Doriel blinked, a whole host of emotions filling him at the sound of the elven word and spell. “Where did you learn that?” he couldn’t help asking.
Tanner shrugged. “Three gold pieces and a few ales can get you a lot of knowledge if you know where to look.” He went back to putting away the tools of his costume into his bag. He intended to sling it over his shoulder in the morning and walk back to Oasis. Doriel had no intention of convincing him to stay. He’d built a life outside the Corellion Rangers, and it appeared to be a good one, with a troupe that cared about him, and a certain amount of success. Of them all, he appeared to have done the best job of leaving the past behind. A man like that wouldn’t be willing to leave it all behind if he could help it.
“How long have you been a mask?” Maple asked.
Tanner cocked his head. “Oh…about twelve years.”
“That long?” Doriel couldn’t help saying.
“I had an offer to join a troupe while I was still serving. After, I was too well known for that one, but the owner had some connections and they were willing to take me in here. I played old men, lechers, drunks, and did very well for a long time, even though I was told my face should have been the hero. Can you see it?” he asked the group, turning so they could get a clear view in the firelight. “Ah, but the world’s loss was my gain, because very few handsome young men are willing to play geezers and reprobates. And I happened to be rather good at it. Good enough, anyway, to afford a very nice shack against the wall and a few trinkets here and there.”
“I’m surprised you aren’t better well-known,” Callio said, with an edge in his voice that Doriel caught.
“Ah, well, that can be explained rather easily. The best-known masks play for nobility on command. I was never one to follow commands.”
No, Doriel remembered with a smile, he wasn’t. But he always knew, almost by instinct, which commands were worth obeying. It didn’t surprise him that Tanner didn’t feel the same pull of the oath as others did. Though bound, of all the Rangers, he was the one whom Doriel had expected to remain free. No matter what the cost.
Maple hugged her knees and looked at Tanner thoughtfully. Did she remember him? She had been so young when everything had fallen apart. Only four years old. But of all of them, Doriel found he hoped she did remember. Tanner had always managed to make her laugh.
“So,” she said, “you’re happy now.”
“Reasonably. No one can be completely happy. It just isn’t possible in the grand scheme of things, but I like my life, yes.”
His gaze drifted to the horizon, and Doriel couldn’t help looking himself.
“Well,” Tanner said, turning abruptly away and focusing once more on his bag, this time tightening it shut, “as much as I’ve enjoyed this reunion, I think I’ve had a full day. It’s past my bedtime.”
Maple laughed, a brief sound that seemed honestly happy. Doriel wished he could hear it more, but knew that as soon as Tanner left, whatever joy she’d felt would be gone. Melodramatic, perhaps, but it was how he felt as he watched Tanner give Maple a theatrical bow, then walk away. “Who has first shift?”
“I do,” Doriel said.
“And second and third,” Maple added, not at all pleased.
Tanner paused. “You haven’t been sleeping, Dori?”
It had been years since he’d heard that nickname. No one had dared use it to his face, except Tanner. He smiled, eyes narrowing and eyebrows knitting together. “No, I haven’t. It’s good to know, ‘Elvenkind,’ that your impudence is undimmed by time.”
“A poet, even when he’s giving orders.” Tanner grinned. “And now, a bedtime story.” He settled down against one of the small rocks that could be found in the earth to the north of Oasis, just big enough to rest head and shoulders against, stretching his long legs out in front of him. And he looked at Maple. “So,” he said, raising an eyebrow, “tell me a story.”
She hesitated, and her face began to close up as it had when Doriel had tried to talk to her in Refuge. “I’m not very good with stories.”
“Well, let me begin it for you then, with your protector’s permission, of course,” and he nodded toward Doriel.
“She might be too tired for a story,” he said.
“We’ve had a long journey, Tanner Elvenkind.” Callio’s words were surprisingly sober. “Far longer than the time it took to get here.”
“Then that will make for the best kind of story,” he said. “But if you’re too tired, it can’t be helped. I suppose my curiosity will have to wait until morning.”
Maple sank her face below her knees until only her eyes showed. “There’s not much to tell. Not until I met Doriel.”
“Then start there, if you feel like it.”
Haltingly, Maple did her best to relate what had happened to them, leaving out the fact she had been in a guild, and most of the escape, focusing mostly on the strange happening within her dream and what Doriel himself had done to stop it. “And now he isn’t sleeping,” Maple said, clearly irritated, “and he’s always looking at the horizon. And Callan’s attack didn’t help any of us. I don’t know what to think right now.”
Tanner had listened to all of her words with rapt attention, especially when she described her dream. When she’d finished, he watched her a moment longer, then shrugged. “Dreams are dreams. They can’t hurt you unless you let them. But it’s good to know Doriel is still devoted to your house after all these years.”
Doriel listened for sarcasm in those words and found none. He relaxed. It was good to know Tanner hadn’t changed as much as he’d feared.
“And now, in return,” Tanner said, “I’ll do the best thing for you that I can. Sleep.” He settled further down and closed his eyes.
Maple laughed and got up to help Callio fix the wagon so she could do the same.
Doriel was about to get up as well, but heard a faint sound like a Red Robin. Too far south for that, he thought, and turned to the direction it was coming from. Tanner looked at him and in hand signals Doriel knew as well as Human said, Tonight. We talk. And then gave him a salute before closing his eyes again.
Impertinent, impudent, cheek…Doriel stared at him a moment, then smiled. Proof the Rangers truly were no more. And he was glad of it.