“The claw slipped again. It came off the edge of the stone and Hadrian felt his stomach rise as he fell. He dropped less than two stories and landed in a thick pile of straw, but it still hurt. With the wind knocked from him, he lay staring up at the sky and the wall.
Royce’s shadow crossed his face. “That was pathetic.”
“You’re enjoying this a little too much for me to think you’re honestly trying to help.”
“Trust me. I want you to improve. I want you to fall from much higher up.”
“Each killing steals a bit of humanity until a murderer is nothing more than an animal. A hunger replaces the spirit. A want for what was lost, but as with innocence, the soul can never be replaced. Joy, love, and peace flee such a vessel and in their stead blooms a desire for blood and death.”
“And why would she do that?” Hadrian shouted to the upper story.
“She told you herself. Farlan was going to have the sheriff investigate.” “Yeah, investigate you!”
“But I didn’t kill anyone. Well, not anyone in Vernes … well, not recently.”
“Where are you from, Hadrian?” “Hintindar originally—a little village south of here in Rhenydd.” “Originally? What’s that supposed to mean? You got yourself born someplace else recently?”
“Royce saw to his horse’s needs; then, finding a suitable place, he unrolled his blanket and lay down.
“I take it we’re camping here, then?”
Royce said nothing, still refusing to acknowledge his existence.
“You could have said, ‘We’re going to bed down here for the rest of the night.’ No, wait, you’re right, too much. How about ‘sleeping here’? Two words. Even you could manage that, right? I mean, I know you can talk. You had plenty to say back in Arcadius’s office. Couldn’t keep the words from coming out then, but no, utterly impossible to indicate in any way that we’ll be stopping here for the night.”
Hadrian dismounted and began unloading Dancer. “How long were we on the road?” He paused to look up at the moon. “What? Five, six hours? Not a damn word. Getting chilly out, don’t you think, Hadrian? Moon looks like a fingernail, ain’t that right, Hadrian? That tree looks like a goddamn bear, don’t it, Hadrian? Nothing. By the way, in case you hadn’t noticed, I was attacked by a goshawk and a pig-riding dwarf that shot eggs at me with a sling. I was knocked from my horse and wrestled with the dwarf, the hawk, and the pig for what had to be half an hour. The dwarf kept smashing eggs in my face, and that ruddy pig pinned me down, licking them off. I only got away because the dwarf ran out of eggs. Then the hawk turned into a moth that became distracted by the light of the moon.”
Royce shifted to his side, hood up.
“Yeah, well … thank Maribor and Novron I didn’t need your help that time.”
“Didn’t care for my help too much in the stable,” Royce said.
“The main paused only a moment, then pulled the boy around so he could look the lad in the eye. "There's doing what's right, and there's doing what's safe. Most of the time you do what's safe because doing different will get you dead for no good reason, but there are times when doing what's safe will kill you too. Only it'll be a different kind of death. They dying will be slow, the sort that eats from the inside until breathing becomes a curse. Understand?”
“Hadrian reeked of death. It wasn’t the sort of stench others could smell or that water could wash, but it lingered on him like sweat-saturated pores after a long night of drinking.”
“My name is Hadrian Blackwater.”
“Uh … what’s yours?”
“Leave me alone.”
“The thing about the old is that we never change so much as the young. We slip in degrees, adding rings like trees--a new wrinkle here, a shade less color there, but the young transform like caterpillars into butterflies. They become whole new people as if overnight.”
“Royce eyed Hadrian with a skeptical expression. “He’ll never manage the climb.”
“Climb?” Hadrian asked.
“The treasure room is at the top of the Crown Tower,” Arcadius explained.
Even Hadrian had heard of that. Even farmers in Hintindar knew of the Crown Tower. Supposedly it was the leftover corner of some ancient but legendary castle.
“I’m in good shape. A few stairs aren’t going to kill me.”
“The tower is heavily guarded in every way, except against a person climbing up the outside,” Royce replied, his eyes fixed on the long fang he continued to twirl.
“Isn’t that because … well, I’ve heard it’s sort of tall.”
“The tallest surviving structure built by man,” Arcadius said.
“Should I bring a lunch?”
“Considering we’ll begin after dusk and climb all night, I’d suggest a late dinner,” Royce replied.
“I was joking.”
“I wasn’t. But I only ask one thing.”
“When you fall to your death, do so quietly.”
“I’m not going to kill these people,” Hadrian said. “They’re nice people.”
“How do you know?”
“I talked to them.”
“You talked to me too.”
“You’re not nice people.”
“I know, I know, I have those wolf eyes that good old Sebastian warned you about. Remember him? The nice man who, along with his nice lady friend, was planning to slit your throat?”
“He was right about you at least.”
“Dear Maribor, you’re heavy,” Hadrian growled as he untied the rope.
“No, I’m not. You’re wounded.” Royce moved his hand and felt the blood-soaked clothes. “God, we’re bleeding like a slit throat.”
“You’re bleeding more than me,” Hadrian said.
“Oh, does that make you feel better?”
“Actually it does.”
“Hadrian took the opportunity to move over and join Royce, who sat with his back to the hearth and his sight on the windows. “I’d say you’re being awfully quiet, but then I might as well follow with ‘Oh look, you’re breathing.”
“Once an idea is learned, once it settles in, it becomes comfortable and hard to discard, like an old hat. And trust me, I have many old hats. Some I haven't worn in years, but I still keep them. Emotion gets in the way of practicality. By virtue of time spent, even ideas become old friends, and if you can't bear to lose an old hat that you never wear, imagine how much harder it is to abandon ideas you grew up with.”
“What is your name?”
“Finally decided to ask, eh?” Hadrian chuckled.
“I will need to know if I am going to book you passage.”
“I can take care of that myself. Assuming, of course, you are actually taking me to a barge and not just to some dark corner where you’ll clunk me on the head and do a more thorough job of robbing me.”
Pickles looked hurt. “I would do no such thing. Do you think me such a fool? First, I have seen what you do to people who try to clunk you on the head . Second, we have already passed a dozen perfectly dark corners.”
“You alive?” Hadrian asked.
“If I were dead, I don’t think there’d be geese.” Royce tilted his head up to catch the arrow of birds heading south. “But maybe they’re evil geese.”
“We have no idea what goes on in the water fowl world. They might have been a gang that stole eggs or something.”
“I’m guessing you have a fever.”
“You were right about the swords,” Royce said. “You really do need three.”
“You sound drunk.”
“I feel drunk-and I hate being drunk. Nothing works the way it’s supposed to. And it makes me act stupid … like you.”
“You’re aware I’m in the process of trying to save your life, right?”
“What part of stupid don’t you understand?”
“Sebastian nodded his way. “This is Hadrian … er, Hadrian…” He snapped his fingers and looked for help.
“Blackwater.” He extended his hand and shook with each.
“And where do you hail from, Hadrian?” Eugene asked.
“A man with no home?” Samuel’s voice was nasal and a bit suspicious. Hadrian imagined him the type of man to count money handed him by a priest.
“What do you mean?” Eugene asked. “He came off the boat from Calis. We talked about it just last night.”
“Don’t be a fool, Eugene,” Sebastian said. “Do you think Calians have sandy hair and blue eyes? Calians are swarthy brutes and clever beyond measure. Never trust one, any of you.”
“What were you doing in Calis, then?” Eugene’s tone was inquisitorial and spiteful, as if Hadrian had been the one to declare him foolish.
“Making his fortune, I suspect,” Sebastian said, motioning toward Hadrian. “The man wears a heavy purse. You should be half as successful, Eugene.”
“All Calian copper dins, I’ll wager.” Eugene sustained his bitter tone. “If not, he’d have a fine wool robe like us.”
“He wears a fine steel sword, two of them in fact. So you might consider your words more carefully,” Sebastian said.
“Three,” Samuel added. “He keeps another in his cabin. A big one.”
“There you have it, Eugene. The man spends all his coin on steel, but by all means go right on insulting him. I’m certain Samuel and I can manage just fine without you.”
“How did you sleep?” Cutting through the quiet with total disregard, came Arcadius’s voice...
“I don’t know, I just sort of put my head down and closed my eyes.”
The old man smiled. “You should be a student here. It usually takes months to break the habit of making unwarranted assumptions. Try the hot cider. It’s soft but if you get it with cinnamon it adds a little zest to your morning.”
“Royce stared at him a second. “What?”
“You heard me-you hear every stupid thing anyone ever says. That’s the most annoying thing about you. Well, not the most -it’s actually really hard to order them. The list is so ridiculously long.”
“The two slept most of the next day, waking only when a boy delivered what he thought might be breakfast, or perhaps lunch, but turned out to be the evening meal. The steaming bowls of vegetable stew and round loaf of brown rye arrived along with a note from Arcadius asking them to visit his office after eating and to do so while being seen by as few students as possible. There was a postscript for Royce explaining it was all right if some students saw them. This was underlined twice”
“You realize we can’t go back to Sheridan.”
“Have to keep heading southwest now, and I don’t know anything about the area. We’ll probably get lost or walk into a road and a patrol.”
“Well”-Hadrian looked down at Royce’s side-“you’re bleeding again, and I think I am, too, so the good news is we’ll likely die before morning. Still, I suppose it could be worse.”
“They could have caught us at the tavern, or we could have drowned in that river.”
“Either way we’d be dead. At this point I’m inclined to see that as better off.”
“Anything can always be worse,” Hadrian assured him.
They lay staring up at the sky and watching clouds blot out the stars. Royce heard it before he felt it. A distant patter on the blades of grass along the hillside. He turned once more to Hadrian. “I’m really starting to hate you.”
“You realize the moment you dropped that book, we stopped being partners,” Royce said.
“Oh yeah-you’re right. Huh. I should have left you for dead after all.”
“What’s the real reason? Just before we started up, you said that you were going to kill me after the job. You were going to show me how you use that big sword.”
“I did. Weren’t you watching?”
“Yes, I was, but you were going to use it to kill me.”
“Damn it-you’re right. I forgot.” Hadrian reached up weakly to touch the pommel of his sword. “Can we do that later? I’m pretty comfortable right now.” He let his arm slap back on the grass.
“Why’d you come back? Why didn’t you just leave?”
“This really bothers you, doesn’t it?”
“Yes. Yes, it does.”
“Royce is a survivor. You’ve never seen the beast, and he’s lived his whole life in its stomach, yet managed not to be digested.”
“They came to a bend in the road where it turned more west than north, and there at the turn was a squat fir tree that for the last quarter mile Hadrian had suspected might be a bear.
Coincidentally, at the same time as they passed the tree, Hadrian finally reached the conclusion that Arcadius was senile. The man was old to be sure. Older than anyone he’d ever met. Older even than his father, who at the time of his departure was the oldest man in Hintindar-though everyone said he carried his age well. The professor didn’t carry his age well at all, and old folks sometimes went batty. One didn’t even need to be that old. Hadrian knew a warlord in the Gur Em who spoke of himself as if he were another person in the room. Sometimes he got in arguments to the point of refusing to speak to himself anymore and insisted others relay messages “to that idiot.” And the warlord was nowhere near Arcadius’s age. The best that could be said for Arcadius was that he carried his insanity well. So well in fact that it took Hadrian all the way to the bear tree to conclude the professor was crazy.
He had to be. There was just no sense in asking him to pair up with Royce.”
“Can I tell the ladies you’ll be visiting?”
Dixon looked back at the cart as if it were a dead body. “If you got some rope, I could clear that chimney for you.”
“I could get some rope.”
“Don’t buy it. Borrow some from Henry the Fisher at the south docks. He ain’t using it today. Tell him it’s for me. He’ll be…” He looked at her and chuckled. “How about I go get it.”
“Whatever you think is best.”
“Best not to send a woman who looks like you across town to a surly fisherman’s bar.” He stared at her a moment and shook his head.
“You’re a beautiful woman, Gwen.”
“Thank you, Dixon.”
“What I meant is that no one should ever mistake you for a man.”
“I don’t think anyone ever has.”
“You keep acting this way and they might. For a second there I did.”
“That’s not good news for a woman in my profession.”
“How do you think it makes me feel? Just got a new job and discovered I’m blind all in the same day.”
“Just so long as you’re not deaf and dumb.”
“No promises. You get me as I am.”
“I’ll take it.”
“The day had warmed, but the rain continued, which Gwen saw as a benefit. Just like with Ethan, the downpour would keep people indoors. Until she was able to get the place sealed up, she felt they were as exposed as mice in a field. While the rain was a nuisance, it had the added benefit of grounding the hawks, allowing her time to dig a burrow. Puppies, cats, ducks, and now mice, why she always thought of them in terms of small animals she had no idea except that such things were cute but also often a burden.”
“Reaching a bench, he dismounted and tied Dancer to the arm.
“Are you intending to be a student here?” one of the older boys asked, looking him over.
Hadrian got the impression from the wrinkled nose that the student didn’t approve. The boy had a haughty tone for someone so young, small, and weaponless. “I’m here to see a man by the name of Arcadius.”
“ Professor Arcadius is in Glen Hall.”
“Which one of these…” He looked up at the columned buildings that appeared even taller with his feet on the grass.
“The big one,” the boy said.
Hadrian almost chuckled, wondering which ones the boy thought were small.
The student pointed to the hall with the bell tower.
“Ah … thanks.”
“You didn’t answer me. Do you expect to attend this school?”
The young man looked stunned. “From Sheridan?”
Hadrian shook his head and grinned. “Different school. Easier to get into but literally murder to pass. Hey, watch my horse, will you? But be careful-she bites.”
He left the boy and three others standing bewildered by the bench, watching him cross to the big doors of Glen Hall.”
“Hadrian turned to look out at the lake. “I hear they have good fishing.”
Royce lifted his head to look at him. “You’re a very odd man.”
“You were the one talking about evil geese .”
“She was too proud to eat her share of what little food we had. She told me she had. She swore she did. But every time I complained about being so hungry it hurt, she always offered me a nut or a partially rotted turnip, claiming she had just found two and already ate hers.”
Rose sniffled and wiped her eyes again.
“After she was gone, I left my pride in that little hut and begged my way to Medford. I’d do anything. Once you’ve spent an afternoon chasing a fly around your house for dinner, once you’ve eaten spiders whole and drooled over worms found while burying your mother with your bare hands, there’s nothing beneath you. All I wanted was to live-I’d forgotten everything else. A clod of dirt doesn’t have dreams. A bit of broken stone doesn’t understand hope. Each morning, all I wanted was to see the next dawn.”
“The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers, some of which we can only estimate, some of which we can reconstruct with fair precision. It is for us as scholars to seek those numbers and to put them into perspective. It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people. If we cannot do that, then Hitler and Stalin have shaped not only our world, but our humanity.”
“He aquí por qué no tenemos tiempo para pensar en la filosofía; y el mayor de nuestros males consiste en que en el acto de tener tiempo y ponernos a meditar, de repente interviene el cuerpo en nuestras indagaciones, nos embaraza, nos turba y no nos deja discernir la verdad.”
“Whether he loved her or not didn't change how she felt about him. She loved him independent and regardless of whether he loved her.”
“A woman who dreams of a good home with a man who holds for her only a poor love is putting a fifty-dollar saddle on a twenty-dollar horse. She’d be far better off single than riding with him.”
“Nadie puede decir cuál habría sido nuestra historia si tanta tribu no hubiese sido aniquilada. Los españoles decían que debían civilizarnos, hacernos abandonar la barbarie. Pero ellos, con barbarie, nos dominaron, nos despoblaron. En pocos años hicieron más sacrificios humanos que nosotros en el tiempo largo que transcurrió desde las primeras festividades.”
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