'A hero?' The mercenary laughs into the mouth of his glass. Silent only for as long as it takes him to swallow. 'Please, neighbour, don't insult me with such a dirty word. LaGatta breeds no heroes, only names them after the fact. Stories to lead others along the same path and all for LaGattan glory. A particular kind of farce better suited for the theatre.'
'Heroes die, after all,' notes the gentleman at his table, his hand atop a closed journal.
'Nobility's a nasty monstrous thing to carry around, getting in the way of all that loot and loving that could enliven life a little. No, you can be the hero, if you will, in your books and stories. I'll be the capricious sidekick instead, never die. Sailing into the sunset - that's more my exit cue. Much better than 'ends down in a dungeon' or 'locked up in a cage.''
A much better ending, much brighter, Traumen agrees into the amber tilt of his own glass. LaGatta left him no opportunity for heroism, no endings in futile wars, a brother lost in their homeland across the sea. Witness what stands instead of heroism: a life of travel and enterprise, a second life in Anchorbon, and a table now shared with a vagrant mercenary daring enough to accept Traumen's impossible bill. Traumen does not want heroes in this story. Only survivors..
Sturdy limbs lax with drink, elbows against the bar, and squinting, Sethr still looks more the hero than Traumen ever did. Young enough for pride, tall enough to fit the role, striking simply by the dubious virtue of fitting his clothes. Traumen is the richer dressed, but not the soldier, soft belly and sloping shoulders, fingers stained with ink; too many years since he set down his sword. For reasons unknown the mercenary of grand reputation accepted an underpaid hire as escort to rumoured city; across the glasses they commit a battle of comradeship, and Sethr of the dark gold eyes appends to a laughing story, a slip of the tongue, 'Yleksa,' a bolt which strikes Traumen true and deep as fear; a name long since consigned to a non-existent grave.
Then, Sethr's reasons for acceptance are clear.
The next morning Traumen struggles for silence to keep the pain in his head; struggles to keep cool old memories of brothers lost. Sethr, blessed, walks without a weave, straight and never wandering. He is curt, yes, but certainly not hung over. There is never any question about following him, for all Traumen is supposed employer.
'Memories?' Sethr laughs when their shoulders brush, trying to wend the same narrow passage simultaneously. Gallant, the mercenary steps back, indicates with a flourish, and Traumen goes first with stomach sucked hard against his spine. The stink of wildlife strong in that crevasse, penned by high walls even where the landscape widens. Sethr's sword is as ready as Traumen's hidden guns. 'Of your brother? What a thing to ask of me! Why do you want to know, anyway? Certainly, I have memories, stocked and stored like precious possessions, useless once obtained. See over there, where trees bare to grassy slope, that looks near exactly the place where Yleksa and I stopped to nap. (Why? I think I was tired of walking, I was young, the midday heat.) Years back. Should we stop there now, you and I, and nap just the same? What does it mean if it's now, there, back then or over here when all memory fades to leave, well, only vague similarity as a reminder? The event is gone, the setting distant or destroyed, and all opportunities had or hated.'
Traumen thinks of his old name, the name Yleksa would have called him. See over there, Sethr, that strip of sand where it meets the rock-face, the spill of fern and shade, that looks exactly the place where Yleksa and I used to play. (Where? In a land lost beyond tomorrow, abandoned back yesterday? I lost him in the in the wilderness somewhere, and when I returned, there was only LaGatta.)
'I am sorry to have posed such reminder by my presence. Obviously this is a sore point. I shouldn't have asked.'
Sethr's hand, firm and forgiving, waves as dismissively as it can feign gallantry. 'Don't be ridiculous, truly, it doesn't mean anything. Memory is what we make of it, and memories don't make of us as men. What chance would we have, then, but to be exactly what we always were?'
'Do I truly look so much like him?'
'No.' Instant and blithe, with a look to meets Traumen's eyes, a palm to cups Traumen's sloping shoulder, 'you're nothing like him, no. You look about ten years older than last I saw dear Yleksa.' The ever-present smile shifts, momentarily too young for Sethr's sun-creased skin, too sincerely wicked. 'And the beards are different, of course.'
This, then, is how Sethr truly smiles; he looks fifteen and ridiculous.
A split second divides again, again, fragmented. When they begin to laugh it is simultaneously, together, Sethr loosely with practice and Traumen tightly, pained, for he's forgotten how to do this.
The first time Sethr says Traumen's name, for all the weeks of their travels together, Traumen realises too late for the warmth to soften him.
'I knew we should have followed the river,' Sethr mutters, mouth turned to address his own shoulder; the manner says he is used to not receiving answers. 'Bloody maze of a forest. No wonder they call it the Lack, bloody lacking in any logic of form. Not going to make it back to the river tonight, or to this supposed pass your map says we should have reached by now— Fuck! Don't do that!' Traumen, awkward, making inadvertent noise, sandal turning on stones to have them scatter and himself yelp like a dog, Sethr's flinch a heartfelt shared hurt. How Sethr accustomed himself to so many long ventures alone, Traumen cannot guess, for his cousin is as gregarious and questioning as Traumen used to be, to seek conversation with himself in the absence of both brother or mirror. 'What say you we stop early for the night? Traumen?'
There it went, lost in Traumen's agreement and their quick discussion as to an appropriate curl of archaic root under which to find their comfort. Not 'Boss', as is Sethr's customary jest, and Traumen would not complain at howsoever Sethr chose to call him. Not 'cousin' this time, that word which has come more frequently these days, cinnamon-coated with the pretense of connection.
Traumen. The name is a lie; Sethr phrases it as question.
They stop. With but the two of them, they find no need to argue as to tasks and duties. Traumen builds a fire, Sethr lays a trapped perimeter to wake them amply against beast or unfriendly Vail, they eat travel rations warmed to edibility. The hour left until sunset does not keep them idle; Sethr is a solider at heart, never idle. He teaches Traumen a soldier's game played with flat driftwood to strike, and this far from the ocean the scholar and journalist in Traumen wonders at that bit of displaced driftwood's journey. A twine-bound rock serves as projectile; Sethr throws arm-over-shoulder and fluidly, with a bare flick of his wrist to set the substitute spinning to strike its target. Traumen stretches that his branch can make a connection, deflect ball from its terminus prior to the strike. When he succeeds the point is his; if Sethr succeeds he always attributes his success to Traumen's lack of attention, never to his own skill. Sethr jogs across the landscape like a Vail born to the arching rooted trees. Traumen takes any opportunity he can to rest, gasping and holding his belly, breathing this rare waste of time deeply. Score is kept in some imaginary land; it doesn't matter.
'This game,' Traumen says, when his driftwood, thankfully, splits, 'it's familiar. Did my brother teach it to you?'
'I don't remember that far back, but I doubt it. And there you go with the memories again, cousin! Why don't you start living a little so you can live instead of remembering?'
Back to cousin again, Traumen thinks, wry. Sethr would be good at strategy games; all roles are defined and unambiguous. 'And that's the life of a hero, is it, in the moment with nary a care?'
'At least it's a life lived for me. What do you have to look forward to, the way you progress? Hunting rumour of a grand treasure in a dead city the Vail both protect and loathe, rumours of the walking dead and magic, imagining you might change the world!''
'I am not typically prone to this backwards-facing you so despise, but circumstance will put us all in roles we do not know how to play.'
'So refuse to play. It's easy.'
'It's not. I need to know it wasn't for nothing, Sethr. What LaGatta did to me, to my country. What I did to Yleksa when I abandoned him there — and they took him, my brother, made him one of them, just like my land. Do you think it's easy that I may look on Anchorbon and know that what happens to here, now, all freedoms lost to a land once entirely without LaGattan spoil, is all because I did not strive to wring truth from these stories?'
'Such arrogance,' Sethr laughs, 'you and your brother are just another pair of mummers in this great stage show, LaGatta the patron and director both. Do you really think you had a choice, how they cast you? Traitor to your own country, lost before you were barely free of childhood? I'm more a traitor to LaGatta than you.'
'There is always a choice.'
'No,' Sethr says, 'no, no, there isn't, you think there is but there isn't, you run, you cut away everything that once was and where do you end up, but chasing your father's expectations again only to find out it was a lie to begin with; and so you carve a way back to where you swore you'd never go again; ask all the questions you want, there's never a bloody choice!'
'So that's why you're still here? Interested in this foolhardy mission of mine no other mercenary would deign to give duty, to claim recompense - revenge? - against what hurt your father dealt you through his ignorance of you?'
'Bah,' dismissive wave, sardonic curl of lip, both expressions a theatre's mask. 'Trying to scrabble for reasons, now? That's as bad as clinging to memories, bits of flotsam sailing inside the cramped space of the skull on tides that make no sense. I don't need reasons.'
'I'm not even going to try to untangle you. You're a contradictory sort of creature, cousin.'
'Contradiction gives me the chance of surprising someone despite the bloody inevitability of how this is all going to end. Two nameless men, set against the might of LaGattan empery. I would laugh, but I think I might choke on the mirth and accidentally die a shameful death. Does this hidden magic you seek combat such death?'
But Traumen shakes his head: 'I can't help you, Sethr. I have no specific quest for vengeance against LaGatta; I only want to put right what my silence has made wrong.'
'Unfortunately,' Sethr says, again to his shoulder, long-sighted gaze half a continent distant, 'it seems I was born and bred for the arrogance of vengeance. Half of me thinks I can do this. We can do this. Maybe it's Ellory, that half. He was always a gullible kind of idiot. Believed in justice, and the fitness of things.'
'I would call it bravery, not arrogance. Not idiocy.'
'Bravery, arrogance, whatever; we always think we're right even when we're quick-marching to the left, cousin. It's all insanity, there's always a war, and all scripts thus writ end in the same way.'
The sun sets on cue, cupped beneath the mercenary's palm.
When the ground's heat finally cedes to the chill, Sethr offers his back. Even through blanket, shirt, shirt and blanket, Traumen can feel each knot of his cousin's spine, alarmingly defined.
The dip and sway of the mercantile Vail's river craft does not daunt Sethr; he dims the lantern as he enters their cabin, footfalls soft. In that moment of illumination, Traumen sees enough of the mercenary, naked as the day of his birth yet still with that proud strut, dry over but for the darkened damp of his hair. His knees crack on way to the bunk. Traumen's own tendons pulse with the rhythm of running; there will be no flexibility of youth here. Traumen curls against the wall to make room. They say nothing. The hand that reaches through the dark to release him is warm.
It would have been easier to turn to begin with, his face into the mattress, his voice swallowed by material presence. This way, facing, Traumen cannot help but feel too much, each breath tight, the dry skin of Sethr's lips on his shoulder, even the defined depth of lifeline that crosses Sethr's palm too stark against the curve of his prick. The worst is his own voice; Traumen hears himself echo, resonate in the air, his throat opened by a warm touch to the taverna ceiling, to the free sky beyond.
'Hush,' Sethr whispers, grinning, teeth against skin, 'hush, you'll wake half the boat.'
'Legacy of a misspent youth,' Traumen tries, still chuckling, half-gasping, for Sethr is merciless in motion, 'in my homeland satisfaction was only to be sought in the service of greater things, not to be found in and of oneself.'
'I can picture with Yleksa, a sword always in his hand. Where taking yourself in hand would prove somewhat fraught an endeavor! But surely you and he didn't sleep with a sword?'
'No, only our purpose. With Yleksa in the same room, always, I was never left alone to learn my own way.'
'So I see.'
Sethr's touch stays amiable; his voice, with mention of Yleksa, clenches tight. Traumen affects astonishment to disarm. 'Even in the dark? A wondrous skill, that.'
Sethr snorts muffled amusement. The unsteady tension relaxes. 'I have many skills.'
In the dark, he finds Traumen's hand where he plucks helplessly at the single sheet twisted beneath them. Sethr laces his fingers through Traumen's until, thus joined, they return to the tasking, slow and steady until their hands are wet. This is how it feels to trust, Traumen remembers now, feels it, moving only with Sethr's direction.
After he comes, Traumen can measure his flesh at a distance. He feels his body's abrupt mechanism slowing; there is acquiescence demanded now, of limbs to this lassitude. Traumen knows how to do this part, at least.
'I feel rather foolish,' Traumen turns his back, 'for losing it so quickly—'
Sticky fingers hesitate, hold; tense forearms bar against Traumen's roll. 'You're nearly fifty, man. To be taken this way, is—I was taught this could only be deplorable. I'll not use you this way, even so offered.'
'And who taught you such, Yleksa? Because it was how he saw this, deplorable? Are you so sure every lesson you learned in LaGatta proves the sole truth applicable to the world, when it was not even a LaGattan who taught LaGatta's harshest lessons?'
'I'll not be the one to make you less than what you are. To make a woman of you.'
'I wonder what any woman of my acquaintance would say to that belief of yours.'
'But that's their nature, cousin; they're born to a female's role, and the rights and rightfulness of that. It's a matter of fact.'
'I wonder that you, mercenary seemingly never known the touch of a woman, claiming the free horizon as your rightful inheritance, can find the balls to try to tell me we are born with an immutable, inflexible nature.'
'Would I have ended a lawbreaker had I not so nearly been a lawmaker to begin with? The end of this all, this farce, is inevitable, all fights won and lost in the name of vanity; all endings are the same.'
'There are other ways to find an ending.' Traumen tries to soothe; Sethr sounds suddenly tired, the rigid force of his arms an embrace, no interdiction. 'I will kneel—'
'Stop offering yourself. You are too much like your brother, so sure you can correctly anticipate what another wants and needs: you presume, boss, that I want you to kneel in silence when instead I want you to stand and shout!' A breath, deep and shuddering. 'Tell me what you want, instead? I could never guess Yleksa's motivations. Most times he'd tried his hardest to make me snap only to be scornful when I did.'
'I, just—' Traumen's heart beats too fast this close to his aftermath, too hard in Sethr's arms, and he aches where he cannot reach alone. 'I want some peace, Sethr. Ellory. However fleeting. Please, cousin.'
'And when I find which ex marked on which ancient city map will deliver such rare find,' Sethr says, trite as he never is, 'I'll remember to split that trove with you, sixty-forty.'
'Even shares,' Traumen says, after a moment's thought.
Sethr's knee nudges against Traumen's own. 'Paper, rock, knife, best of three, winner takes all?'
'As if I'd ever gamble against a mercenary's luck.'
The fog thickens deeper in the Lack, the dead city surrounded by a sea of death. Sethr stands at the intangible boundary where even the ancient trees do not broach. The sand beyond is silvered and bare.
Traumen approaches, silent. This awards him a puzzle: Sethr cradles a flower in cupped palms. The flower, Sethr's fingers, his cheeks also, are wet with mist or sentiment. Sudden perfume hits the air, petals crushed: yet Sethr cannot hide what he holds. He simulates boldness instead, presenting the flower with a bow to a recipient whose heart beats too fast for frivolity.
'The last whole bloom you'll see for a while, if we cross this ocean of sand.'
Sethr almost leaves, but Traumen wears his air of waiting well.
'You know what the Vail say happened to this place! I don't want to see it, Traumen, seeing, believing what might be possible if LaGatta learns how to use this. I shouldn't have to feel this guilt. This — decision — is not my responsibility.'
The flower is bruised, sweet with dying summer. Traumen keeps it regardless; however fleeting, all evidence of sentiment is to be treasured.
'And if what we find here could be taken by others, to end the deaths at LaGatta's hands?'
Sethr shakes his head wildly. 'Then instead we face the deaths of LaGattans. I face the knowledge I could have stopped the deaths of all LaGattans. Let it rest here silently! Is conquest so bad when LaGatta seeks to build nations, not slaughter peoples?'
'Only a LaGattan would so say.' Traumen plants foot upon silvery sand.
In the city they call Abandon, the scientist's son and the fighter turned writer watch a strange child speak to a skull shaped like no form either killer has seen.
The skull answers in a voice of powdered bone.
After they leave the city, Traumen sees this: Sethr, torn between past and self. The way back is not so long nor quite so devious, but Sethr cannot strike that final blow to sever the twain. Aracelis is a name with long history and compelling future. Traumen knows how that must feel; while it cannot be compared, knowledge of Yleksa's rise in LaGatta bruised him.
'I will write the missive to Yleksa,' Sethr says. 'Not you. I will write it to your brother, my cousin, and I will send this letter if it must be sent, and Yleksa can decide as one who stands as both consequence and cause of LaGatta's conquest—'
But the letter burns after it is writ, no more than ash and lines along Sethr's cheeks and brow. Traumen asks, 'Do you think perhaps there is another way?'
Sethr shoves Traumen, holds him, hits him. 'There's only one way in LaGatta! Only one! Your own brother taught me that lesson, taught you that lesson!' Sethr's sneers are too much like his smiles. 'Take your pity and spend it on a mirror.'
Some hours after, Sethr return, 'I'm sorry.'
'That's my line. Heroes don't apologise. That's what you will be to LaGatta, if you return with this.'
Sethr's smiles are also too much like his sneers. He lies in the narrow bunk opposite Traumen's, graceless with exhaustion. 'I've never given much justice to that role. You know what I will do.'
'That's an exit line well thought out.'
'Little reason for me to to linger.'
A statement, not a question, yet Sethr struggles to elaborate.
Not a year ago, when they started this journey together, Sethr would like as not have run for the other horizon, Traumen thinks, overwhelmed by the darkness of what he was (traitor, to blood and country both). That Sethr pledged himself to indifference, having grown so like his life that asked no questions that it seemed of little consequence. The choices now have changed, Traumen can see: Sethr cannot leave his city vulnerable, no more than he could have let Traumen walk into a city of secrets alone to return the only one enlightened.
'Can you not see that if you think a forgotten power must by needs be given to LaGatta to preserve those people against its use, that another people might well feel the same fear of LaGatta, possessed of such?'
'It's not that,' Sethr says, 'it's just what has to be done. Who else will keep LaGatta from both abuse and misuse, if not one such as I?'
'What,' Traumen says, with mock insult not so mocking, 'an emotional hero?'
For Sethr quickens with purpose, as with child.
'I can be rational,' Sethr says. 'It is LaGatta that is insane.'
Swallow his glory now, Traumen thinks, and reaches for the man in desperate farewell. Because there is such distance, and the ache of the aftermath, and Ellory as source and terminus of them all, walking, mistaking his way. Traumen feels the rush of time like fingers in his hair, tasting a cigarette in the morning sun, and he wants to grab at Ellory and hold him down, smother life and purpose from him, he wants to say, 'This can never be good, not in a LaGattan's hands!'
But fear falls away so fast, once he lets it go. He can only start over so many times; he can only lose so many brothers.
'Laugh with me,' Traumen says instead, 'at how this will end.'
Ellory smiles, but not at him: 'I'll be laughing that hard, myself; all things end the same way.'
In death, Traumen knows.
July 2013, complete.
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