He runs, and he curses himself for the thunderous sound of his own breathing. Branches tear at the arms he raises to protect his face and eyes, slap at his bare legs and thighs, drawing a small gasp from him with every new blow. He can hear them following after, laughing to themselves, calling out to him. "Little rabbit, little rabbit," their voices ring, high and clear and unafraid. He runs naked. Heād escaped when he had a chance, and he hadnāt had time·he doesnāt have time·heād never have time·
It was a game to them. Heād held her in her arms while sheād died, and she had still been warm when they came for him. Their sweaty hands all over him, groping at him, insistent, big and strong and frightening, laughing at his tears.
So there was nothing left anymore. Just run, and run, and run, and die eventually, but donāt let them catch you. Never let them catch you.
An errant root catches at his foot and he falls and knows he is undone and the tears begin to come again. He doesnāt mean to cry, he doesnāt mean to be afraid, but it isnāt fair. He doesnāt want to go back there, never again, not anymore, not ever. Desperate, he tries to pull his foot free, only to feel one of those big, strong, sweaty hands, which are surely the stuff of nightmares, close over his small ankle, encompassing it. Heād always wanted to be big and strong. If he had been big and strong and not small and weak, he couldāve saved Meira. Rolling over, he kicks at the hand holding him, dragging him, only to feel the other hand close about his thigh, not to contain or restrain, but simply to touch. He screams, a high, girlish sound, and forgets all about Meira and being strong.
The man laughs as he turns the boy over, shoving his face into the dirty ground. The hands move over his body in the old, familiar patterns, the pain not dulled by repetition. Except now he knows that when the man is done with him, he will die.
There is a flash of light, and the boy thinks Īno, itās too soon, I donāt want to die,ā and the tears come pouring forth because he doesnāt want to live, either. And then he realizes that the hands moving across his nakedness have stilled·no, have vanished altogether. But he doesnāt want to move. There will simply be another pursuer, and another, and another, when all the others are gone.
Arms wrap around him, lift him up. He struggles briefly before he recognizes the touch for what it is·pure, free of the endless insistence. These arms do not frighten him. He buries his face in the warmth of a forgiving human shoulder and lets his pain go.
"Shhh," whispers the voice which he cherishes. "Shhh. Iām sorry, Iām sorry. But Iāll make this right, I promise you. Never again, do you understand me?"
And he does not. But he will.
* * *
"Busy day, Young Master?" Gremio asked, easing the heavy robes off of Aaron McDohlās body and carefully folding them before lying them down atop the nearby chest of clothes.
The young President of the Toran Republic sighed and stretched hard before replying, craning his neck outwards until he heard the satisfying crack. Relaxing, he set to rubbing the back of his neck with one hand as he eased himself into one of the thickly upholstered chairs adorning the foyer of his room. He saw Gremio glance distastefully at the single brown glove that he wore, but chose to ignore the gesture. He almost, instinctively, unfolded his glove to look at the blazing red rune emblazoned on the palm. He knew that his old friend thought the Soul Eater was best disposed of, or at least given to someone more competent in the ways of magic, but Aaron had quickly quashed such ideas. "I made this Republic on the strength of my army, my friends·and this Rune," he had carefully explained. "The situation with Jowston is too volatile for me to give up the source of my power. And ever if I no longer needed its power· I would still need its symbolism. The people look on it as my banner, Gremio, and without it, I might as well go naked." Besides, it was all he had left of Ted.
"Busy day?" Gremio repeated.
"You have no idea," Aaron replied with an expansive sigh. "The people are still reeling from Barbarossaās death. If Iām to unite them, I need to inform them, and if theyāre going to be seriously aware of the royalty for the first time in generations, they need to know that Iām strong, see that I can lead them. I have to work double-time until I can get everybodyās feet under them."
"You make it sound so easy," Gremio chided. "Drink this." He pushed a steaming cup of tea into Aaronās hands. The young president yelped at the heat and quickly placed the cup on the table next to him, beside a copy of Dissertations on Jowston that Kasim had kindly given him for his seventeenth birthday. Shaking his fingers, he glared reproachfully at Gremioās back. "Perhaps if you delegated some of all this, young master, youād have more energy."
"I canāt do that, Gremio, and you know it. Mathiu always used to say, Īthe devil is in the detailsā. Thereās so much involved in running a Republic, Gremio. I never knew. Weāre having a bit of crisis now, to top it all off. Thereās some kind of civil war in Jowston right now, and what little trade that came here through Jowston from the north has stopped entirely. Iāve got to keep on top of everything going on·weāve been over this."
"Youāre starting to sound a little too much like Mathiu for my tastes," Gremio stated with candor. "It would be like him to assume that everything needed his direct supervision." The older man paused, turned around, and looked at Aaron with sadness in his eyes. "Forgive my forwardness, young master, but Iāve always believed that if his wounds hadnāt killed him, he wouldāve killed himself."
"Listen, please," Gremio pleaded. "You founded this Republic on the backs of people you trust·trust to fight for you, trust to work with you, trust to obey your orders. If you could trust them then, you can trust them now, canāt you?"
"Itās not the same thing at all."
There was a knock at the door. "I took the liberty of ordering you up a bath, young master, to work out the kinks." He paused, and Aaron nodded. Gremio bustled over to the door, and supervised while the brass tub was brought in, filled, and then hustled the servants out. Gremio enjoyed serving Aaron himself, despite being the head butler of Gregminster Castle and having a vast staff at the ready to perform such menial tasks for him. It had taken the servants a long time to realize that Gremio hadnāt been indirectly insulting their work. In the time prior to that, however, quality of work had soared while each servant tried to best the other and vie for Gremioās attention. Once they realized that Gremio simply cared very deeply for the President and wasnāt commenting on their work at all, it had returned to normal.
Aaron rose and walked over to the tub, then tested it with his fingers. "Perfect." He paused. "And, Gremio. It wouldnāt be so bad to have Mathiu here, or Flik, or Viktor, or any of them. It wouldnāt."
Gremio stopped short. "Oh, young master, Iām so sorry! Thatās not what I meant at all!" He gripped Aaron by the shoulder in a gesture of familiarity everyone else thought Aaron might find embarrassing. He found it a comfort. "What I meant to say is, youāre not Mathiu. Or Flik, or Viktor. Youāre Aaron, and you can only do things the best way you know how. Please understand."
There was another knock at the door, and Gremio let go of Aaronās shoulder. "Iāll see to that. You try to relax. Youāll work yourself to death, I swear."
Aaron sighed as Gremio went into the foyer to answer the door. He hadnāt meant to be sharp, he hadnāt, but everything was so hard. It felt like years since heād had a full nightās sleep, for one, and talking about Mathiu, Flik, Viktor and the rest only opened wounds he thought heād closed. At least it reminded him that there were people who had endured greater hardships than he had, helped him work through his bouts of self-pity. He looked out the partially open door into the foyer and could see Gremio speaking to a younger servant he didnāt recognize, and it suddenly occurred to him that in all the months since Scarlet Moon had fallen, heād never spoken to Gremio about his death and subsequent resurrection by Leknaat the seer. The thought of doing so left a cold pit in his stomach, and he shuddered in spite of himself.
His bath would get cold. Reaching for the ties at his neck, Aaron turned away, only to be distracted by a discreet knock at the door.
"Come in," he called out. Gremio opened the door, and behind him Aaron could see the servant heād noticed earlier.
"I think that might have to wait," Gremio told him, and Aaron heard the surprise and gravity in his voice. "You have an·unexpected guest."
The messenger boy stepped aside and a slight, childlike figure stepped into the doorway. Aaron gasped in shock. In the year since the fall of the Empire, Luc had lost neither his small, almost elfin build nor his boyish looks. However, in the laughing blue eyes there was nothing but gravity and seriousness. He carried, as always, a small unadorned walking stick. Though his fist was closed, Aaronās magical sensitivities, enhanced by the Soul Eater, could sense Lucās omnipresent Wind Rune embedded into his palm like a tattoo.
"Luc," Aaron said quietly, shocked. "Itās been a year. What are you doing here?"
Luc entered the room, his staff tapping on the tiles of the hallway, deadened when he entered the room and stepped on the carpet. "I need to talk to you, Aaron. Itās important." Aaron had never known Luc to lean so heavily on his staff.
"Of course," Aaron replied. "Anything I can do for you, naturally. Gremio, get Luc some tea."
"No," Luc said quickly. "This is important, Aaron. I need it; thereās no time. I have to get back to Jowston and give it to Leknaat, tomorrow morning, first thing, I have to have it..." Luc walked into the center of the room and rested his hand on the edge of the tub, staring into the water. Drip.
Aaron knew something was wrong, it wasnāt like Luc to babble. He sounded delirious, to Aaronās untrained ears. "What is it you need? Who is it? Is it Leknaat? Whatās wrong?" He glanced at the water and saw the red blot spreading through it. Glancing up to Lucās face in shock, he saw the blood running from his friendās ears, forming rivulets across his face. Drip. Another drop of blood fell from Lucās chin into the water.
"Leknaat! Of course itās Leknaat!" Luc snapped. "Havenāt you been listening to me, Aaron? Sheās dying!" His hand on the edge of the tub was shaking, as if palsied, and his staff, Aaron saw, was shuddering as the hand that held it quivered too. He took three quick steps towards the mage before the staffās shaking became so violent that its end, resting on the carpet, skidded to one side and Luc slipped. All of his weight on the bathtub pulled it over, and Luc, tub, and staff, all fell.
"Gremio!" Aaron cried, grabbing Luc and pulling him towards the chair. "Quickly, run and get help!" He felt for a pulse and found only the faintest one in Lucās wrist. "Heās dying! Run!"
* * *
"He was lucky," Liukan said quietly, glancing through the open door to the room where Luc lay silent, still, and recumbent. "We used some magic to stabilize him, but when we got his clothes off we couldnāt find any wounds. He was losing blood internally, but we managed to stop that too. Heās just sleeping now. The poor boyās pushed himself beyond his limits, ruptured himself. Itās a wonder he wasnāt dead when he got here."
"Is there anything else?" Aaron asked.
Liukan flushed. "Yes, there is," he said, sounding discomfited. "You should see it, President McDohl. Be quiet, though, we donāt want to disturb him." Liukan lead Aaron into the infirmary room where Luc lay. Gremio started to follow, but Aaron motioned him to stay behind.
Aaron had been lucky that Liukan had been there ö it sounded as if the Holy Physician might have had a difficult time, and a lesser doctor might have failed. Liukan ran a sizeable medical university in the city, and rarely did any healing anymore, teaching and administration mostly.
"Here it is," Liukan said. Reaching out, he gently pulled the white sheet away from Lucās neck, exposing his bare chest. "Look here," Liukan said, pointing. A few centimeters above Lucās left nipple someone had burnt a symbol into his skin. It was an old burn, and very pale, but wide. It looked as if someone had branded him, a long time ago, and seared a crest into his flesh.
"That symbol..." Aaron whispered.
"Thatās right," the aged doctor said. "Itās the crest of Jowston." The symbolic bull, reared on its hind legs, with its long, wickedly curved horns, stared at Aaron from Lucās skin.
"What does it mean?" Aaron whispered.
Suddenly Lucās hand rose and fell across the scar, covering it completely. "Itās my business," Luc told him quietly. His voice was lethargic and hardly audible, his eyes still closed. "Am I in Gregminster?"
Aaron leaned over his friend, drawing the sheet back up to Lucās neck. "We didnāt mean to intrude, Luc. Iām sorry. And yes, youāre in Gregminster Castle, with friends. You came here last night, then collapsed. Whatās going on?"
"I donāt·I donāt remember getting here. Everything is blurry·" He sighed. "So tired·"
"You need your rest, Luc," Liukan stated in that oddly gruff, yet somehow gentle way he always spoke to a patient. "Youāve been through a lot, donāt force yourself."
"No," Luc replied, his weak voice still conveying that he wouldnāt be swayed. "This is important. Aaron. Leknaat, Leknaat is dying."
Aaron nodded. "You told me, before you collapsed." His balled his hand into a fist and thumped it against his leg. "I prayed you were just delirious."
Almost imperceptibly, Luc shook his head. Blond hair fell across his forehead, where sweat was beading and running down his face, soaking his hair to his skin. "No. Itās all true. The Rune of the Gate, its power is gone."
Liukan gasped suddenly, and Aaron shot him an alarmed look. "By all accounts," the doctor said quickly, "Leknaat is over four hundred years old, but when Windyās Rune of the Gate was destroyed·" He trailed off, shaking his head sadly.
"You understand," Luc whispered. "Please, tell Aaron. He has to see·why I need it. Please, Liukan. Iām so tired." Liukan rested his hand briefly on Lucās forehead, brushing his hair away from his face, then dabbed at Lucās face with a damp cloth from a bedside table. It took Aaron a moment to realize that Luc had slipped into his healing slumber again.
Taking Aaron by the arm, Liukan lead him out of Lucās room and shut the door. "I think I know why Luc is here, President McDohl," the physician told him. Gremio approached them and listened quietly. "Iām acquainted with runic lore, and I think I understand what's going on. The Rune of the Gate consisted of two parts ö Entry and Exit. Their powers could counteract each other, or work in perfect tandem. The True Runes are flexible when working with each other. We have substantial proof that Windyās and Leknaatās longevity stems from their close affiliation with the Rune of the Gate, but now that Windyās half is gone, the Rune has likely become inert, so·"
"Leknaatās longevity is gone?" Aaron asked in shock.
Liukan nodded. "Thatās right. And now, all those years of longevity could very well have caught up with her."
"That doesnāt explain why Luc came here."
Liukan shrugged. "Iām a doctor, not a mind reader, President McDohl. If you want to know what Luc wants, youāll have to wait for him to wake up. But as to that scar, since I know youāre going to ask me, I donāt know what it means. But if you ask me, it is Lucās business. It doesnāt change the fact that for whatever reason, heās come here for your help."
* * *
Later, in his quarters alone, Aaron brooded over his meeting with Luc while he soaked in his long awaited bath. Liukan was right ö that strange scar was none of his business, and yet he couldnāt get it out of his mind. One didnāt end up, he felt, with the crest of Jowston burned into oneās skin unless one was involved with Jowston in one way or another. Could he really afford to give his assistance to Luc, whatever it was he needed, without knowing what his involvement with Jowston actually was?
Jowston had always been hungry for the Scarlet Moonās rich pasturelands and military might, and had made several half-hearted attempts to overthrow the old Empire prior to Aaronās rebellion. None of them, of course, had broken the defenses of the mighty Emperor and his Five Great Generals. Yet, after Barbarosaās fall and the instatement of a teenaged boy on the throne of President, Jowston had come sniffing after their weakness.
Though Jowston had failed to make any direct, total attacks on the Toran Republic, border incursions were becoming more and more frequent, despite the best efforts of Kwanda Rosman and Kasim Hazil.
In terms of history, Jowston was a fairly recent addition to the political world scene. Initially, it had been a resource rich economy, but hadnāt had any ruling body, just roving clans that nominally formed the nation of Jowston. Later, one clan in particular had begun to form the actual Republic, and the rest of the clans had fallen in behind them. Little else was actually known about Jowston, since they avoided outside contact religiously. They were openly hostile to all their neighbors, but openly aggressive only against Toran.
But none of that explained what Lucās involvement had been. Aaron drummed his fingers uneasily against the rum of the tub as he mulled it over. It wasnāt as if the President of the Toran Republic couldnāt track that sort of thing down, but·Luc was his friend, his comrade, and he liked and trusted him even though he could be mercurial at times.
He would see what Luc wanted, and then decide what to do. He wasnāt just Aaron McDohl anymore. Now he was the President of the Toran Republic, and he had to consider what effect his actions had on his country, no matter how much he might respect Lucās privacy.
So he was decided then. Liukan was optimistic that with the healing ministrations heād been giving Luc, the young mage would be coherent and active within a days, probably sometime tomorrow. He could drop in on Luc after his various duties had been attended too.
Then heād decide.
* * *
When Aaron arrived late the next evening, Luc had donned his familiar white clothes and green surplice and was staring out the window at the city of Gregminster. He didnāt look at Aaron when he entered.
"Iām glad youāre up," Aaron said. "How do you feel?"
"Iām fine," Luc said quietly. "Liukan·he told you about Leknaat?"
"That her longevity is gone."
Nodding, Luc turned and sat down, motioning for Aaron to do the same. Aaron grinned at that beside himself ö usually it was the other way around, but he seated himself nonetheless. One got used to Luc in time. "All the years are catching up with her, Aaron, and her body canāt take the strain. Sheās four hundred and twelve years old, Aaron.
"Sheās in Jowston now, with some friends of mine." Aaron started at that, but didnāt speak. "Weāve been there since Hellion became the seer and moved into our home on the Isle."
"We needed a place away from Toran, someplace where we could recover. Bad things happened in that war, Aaron. Both of us needed time to recuperate." It struck Aaron abruptly that Luc was only thirteen or fourteen years old ö his demeanor was such that Aaron often forgot how young he was. The war must have been hard on him, but Aaron had never asked·and Luc had never complained. Aaron himself was only seventeen, but he had been bred for that kind of thing, raised for it since birth. He was, after all, the son of a Great Imperial General. "We hadnāt been there long when she started suffering. It started slowly, at first, arthritis, and sickness in the morning, pains she didnāt have before·Then she lost the use of her legs, and her magic started getting away from her. She really is blind now, Aaron. She lost her sight with the Rune. She canāt even see magically anymore. She told me not to come, but I canāt stand to see her like that, so I came as fast as I could, by magic. I guess I pushed myself too hard." He hung his head.
"I know you probably think Iām insane, but you owe Leknaat so much, and you donāt need it anymore, and·I canāt let her die, Aaron."
Aaron looked at Luc in confusion. "I donāt understand, Luc," he told him. "What is it exactly you need from me?"
Blinking, Luc stopped shaking his head and looked up at Aaron. "Liukan didnāt tell you?" Aaron shook his head. "I shouldnāt have counted on someone elseās rune lore being as good as mine, I guess· Aaron, the longevity wasnāt just a property of the Rune of the Gate, it was a property of all the True Runes. I donāt want Leknaat to die, I owe her too much and thereās still so much she needs to do. Her job isnāt done yet, even now that Windyās dead. What Iām saying is," he looked Aaron straight in the eye, "your Soul Eater rune can make her immortal again. And I want you to give it to her."
* * *
"Why, good evening, Young Master," Cleo said, opening the door wide. "This is a pleasant surprise." She took him by the arm and led him into the house. "Why, youāre white as a ghost. Whatās wrong?"
"Can I sit down, Cleo? Iāve just had a big shock."
Cleo lead him through the halls of the house heād grown up in to the small living room, where a bay window looked out onto the square and its fountain. "Whatās bothering you? Is it about Luc?" She smiled at his confusion. "Gremio told me. Heās worried about you ö you know he never trusted him."
"Yes, it is about Luc," Aaron replied quietly. "Cleo, I donāt mean to be rude, but I mostly came to see Dragon. Is that all right?"
Cleo nodded. "It doesnāt bother me at all. But Iāll warn you, heās in a fouler mood then he usually is. Heās been dormant a lot, too. Viktorās death really hurt him. Iāll just go get him."
Aaron almost stopped her before she left the room, but didnāt. He did need to see Dragon, no matter how uncomfortable it made him. Heād been avoiding it since Barbarosaās overthrow. So he sat there, feeling guilty about the year heād been avoiding this, until Cleo came back with the Sword.
The Star Dragon Sword was a bluish-black from hilt to tip, save for the almost caricature of a face molded onto the crosspiece and base of the blade. The eyes of that barely human face were open now, and a faint red light flickered across them. Cleo held the sword by the hilt, point downwards. Standing before Aaron, she released the sword, and it simply hung there, point barely touching the ground.
There was a long moment of silence.
"Leave us alone, Cleo," the sword said suddenly. Its voice had an eerily deep, echoing quality. Cleo nodded, smiled reassuringly at Aaron, and quickly left the room without complaining. She had told Aaron you got used to Dragonās moods, and after a while, stopped arguing. He admired her, taking on the onerous task caring for the blade, but also thought that she pitied Dragon on some level or another.
The death of Viktor had plunged Dragon into a state of inconsolable loss. Evidently it had bonded to Viktor in a very powerful way, and being left without the recipient of the bond had made the sword almost catatonic. When it had finally become sane again, Dragonās normally sarcastic demeanor had been replaced by something far more venomous.
"Youāre here," Dragon said suddenly, "about Leknaat."
Aaron blinked in surprise. "How did you know that?"
"Just because youāre out of touch with me doesnāt mean Iām out of touch with the world, Aaron," Dragon snapped. "Letās just say Iām aware and leave it at that. So why do you need me?"
"Luc is here. I need to make sure heās telling me the truth about some things."
"I thought you two were friends."
"We are, but I have reason to believe he might be involved with Jowston, too."
"That still doesnāt answer my question, McDohl," Dragon told him impatiently. "You want information about Jowston, ask Kasim. You know more than I do. So tell me why youāre wasting my time or leave me alone."
"Am I immortal?" Aaron blurted.
Dragon barked a quick laugh, a short, unpleasant sound. "Oh, I get it. You need to know if youāll live forever with the Soul Eater. You need to figure out whether to give it to Leknaat. So you finally come to me."
"Itās not my fault he died."
"Yes. Youāre immortal. Does that make you feel better? The True Runes make their holders immortal, what did you think they did? Yes. Barring unnatural causes, you will live indefinitely. Now get out of my house."
Aaron rose. "Thanks, Dragon," he told the sword, as levelly as he could. "Iāll send Cleo in when Iām gone." He headed for the door, then stopped, resting his hand on the doorframe. "Viktor·he was my friend. If I could have saved him, I wouldāve. He gave himself up of his own free will."
"He did it for you. Now leave, I donāt want to talk to you."
"You donāt usually make the rounds with me, President McDohl," Kasim commented, closing the door of his office. "I trust you found the troops to be in order?"
"Perfect, as usual," Aaron replied, smiling at the General as he sat down. "Youāre done a fine job with them, Kasim. Iām impressed." Aaron paused and waited for the General to sit down. Despite their somewhat rocky start, Aaron liked and respected Kasim Hazil. The man was competent and good natured, talented and down to earth. He spoke his mind, but always treated Aaron with respect. Furthermore, he didnāt wrap himself in a shroud of tragedy, like Kwanda Rosman did. Despite Kwandaās great skill, Aaron was glad that Kasim was handling the affairs in Gregminster and not the Iron Wall.
"I rather guessed as much," Kasim replied, "although it probably wouldnāt hurt if youād review the troops more often." Kasim made no apology for the criticism. "It keeps moral up, lets them know that youāre aware of them and that you care." The older man leaned forward and steepled his fingers atop the wide, oaken desk, looking at his President. "How may I serve you?"
"I need information about Jowston, Kasim, and I figured you were the best person to ask. You did border guard at Moravia for all those years."
"You neednāt remind me, President," Kasim chuckled, taking his pipe off the desk and thumbing it full of tobacco from his bag. "The worst assignment of my life. Back then, towards the end of the Emperorās reign, Jowston was too afraid of us to make any serious overtures. I sat there for all those years and let my skills go straight to hell." He took a long puff. "But itās important to know your enemy. Ask me anything, President. Iāll do my best."
"Iām curious about a particular kind of marking." He indicated on his body the general area of Lucās scar. "The crest of Jowston, the bull, burned about here. It's not a scar or a tattoo, but a brand. Like it was made with an iron."
Kasim started nodding the moment Aaron mentioned the crest of Jowston. "Mmm-hmm. I know of them. Officially, they donāt exist, but itās an ugly story." Kasim leaned back in his chair and took another puff. "The formation of the Republic created an interesting breed of patriot. The Javstani, the clan that eventually spearheaded the formation of the Republic, started uniting the other clans under the banner of the Jowston of today. That was the first time those markings appeared. The Javstani were fanatical in the pursuit of their goals, and anyone who defied them was, by definition, the enemy ö and evil to the core. Concentration camps were established to hold those who defied the Javstani and their allies ö mostly splinter groups of clans that had already given in to them." Kasim sighed. "A lot of very ugly things happened in those camps. Itās fair to say that anyone who was in those camps would have come out with those burns ö it was a reminder that defying the Javstani was evil. It was a vicious, vicious time in Jowston."
"How long ago was that?" Aaron asked.
"Well," Kasim said thoughtfully, "the whole patriot movement started about fifty years ago, but the concentration camps were only officially disbanded about eight or ten years ago."
It fit. Luc was about fifteen, so it was possible that heād been in the camps, and marked, when he was just a child. Aaron shivered. Kasim was a soldier, and an old one. If he was glossing over the things that happened in the camps, it must have been incredibly awful. And to have to carry a reminder of it for your entire life...
"Is there any other reason that someone would have that kind of marking?" Aaron forced out.
"Various other reasons, typically related. Sometimes people outside of the camp would be scarred if other people thought that they were not pro-Javstani. It was a time of great paranoia in Jowston, you have to understand. Fear and ignorance were rampant." Kasim sighed, and carefully refilled his pipe before he spoke again.
"In many ways, nothing has changed. It wasnāt that long ago that Jowston was officially united under the Javstani, so things could still be tumultuous. I remember, once, we encountered a group of refugees heading south of Jowston, so we brought them back to Moravia for questioning. One of them was the son of a lord in Jowston ö he wouldnāt have been more then nineteen or twenty. Heād served the Republic faithfully as a spy and as a soldier, but someone got it into his head that he was selling the Republic out to the Scarlet Moon, all sorts of classified information and such. He was drummed out of the military and exiled. He got caught up with by some people in his old platoon just before he sneaked across the border." Kasim sighed again, and puffed on his pipe. "I remember he was sobbing and ashamed, and the crest on his chest was still bleeding. It makes me so sad, to think of the situation in Jowston." The General shook his head, then pointed his pipe at Aaron to drive home his final statement. "Whatever else you could say of the Emperor, he never set out to breed ignorance or fanaticism. Thatās the big difference between Jowston and us."
Kasim was silent for a very long moment. "I may be not much outside of a soldier, President McDohl, but Iām not blind. If the mage friend of yours, if Luc has that kind of scar, then I must have misjudged him. He must be a lot stronger then he looks."
* * *
So. Luc was either an oppressed member of an anti-Javstani clan, or a framed and discredited pro-Javstani spy. Of the two, the former seemed far more likely, but he had his country to think about, and he wasnāt free to go making assumptions. Heād need to ask Luc directly, however much it might hurt their friendship.
The next day Jowston made yet another border insurrection, which Kwanda repelled, but not without losses. Sonyaās fleet was moving north to patrol the ports that were vulnerable to attack by Jowston. Aaron spent most of the day dealing with the details of these plans, supply routes, contingency plans·after that there were various civil cases and a delegation from the Dragon Knights in response to a request for military aid. It would take them time to mobilize in force, Joshuaās message said, but the Dragon Knights would come to the defense of Toran.
Aaron asked Gremio to take the night off, which he did under protest. After Aaron had eaten, alone, he shed his robes of office in favor of something more casual and sent for Luc.
When the young mage arrived, he seemed nervous as he sat down across from Aaron. "Have you made a decision about the Soul Eater?" he asked hopefully. It was the first time Aaron had ever heard a note of pleading in Lucās voice.
"Not yet, but thatās why Iāve asked you here tonight. I was hoping you could help me make a decision."
"Damn it, Aaron," Luc whispered, close to tears. "Sheās dying. You have to do something soon, or sheās going to waste away. I need to know tonight." He clenched his fists on his lap. "Please, I beg you. Sheās like a mother to me. Donāt let this happen when you can stop it."
Aaron shifted, feeling nervous and guilty and ashamed. "Luc, before I can decide·I need you to tell me about your scar. The one on your chest."
Flinching as if heād been physically struck, Luc rose and started pacing. Aaron noticed with alarm that he was crying. "Luc," he said, "Iām sorry, but I have to know the truth. I need to know what happened between you and Jowston." The mage began rubbing his hands together, taking quick, shuddering breaths.
"This has nothing to do with Leknaat," he whispered.
"It has everything to do with me. Iām almost at war with Jowston, and if thereās even the slightest chance that youāll put the Soul Eater in their hands..."
"I wouldnāt do that! Aaron, Iām your friend! We fought together in the war; we saved each otherās lives! How could you not trust me?"
Aaron dropped his eyes from the accusing look in Lucās. "Iām not just Aaron McDohl anymore," he whispered, shocked at how close he was to crying. "It was different when I was just a rebel leader. Now Iām the President. Now everythingās changed for me. Nobody knows the kinds of pressures Iām under. Nobody can understand. Iām not ready for this, but I have to be. I donāt enjoy doing the difficult things Luc, but I have to know.
"It comes down to this, Luc ö if you canāt give me a straight answer I canāt even consider giving you the Soul Eater. I know that you hate me for it, but I have to know."
Luc shook his head. "I·Iāve never discussed it with anyone but Leknaat and Althea." He sat down again. Aaron saw that he was shivering almost uncontrollably. "I still donāt like thinking about it." He sighed, cupped his hands on his lap, and stared at them. Then his eyes closed. "My name is Luc di Kaltari, of the Kaltari clan. Iām the last of the Kaltari, actually.
"My people were mystics, philosophers, nomads. We lived off the land and our cattle, travelling where they led us. When the Javstani started to unite the clans, the Kaltari resisted. We were one of the first clans to do so, but because we were so small, the Javstani ignored us because they had more important clans to deal with first. I was still very young when the Javstani started rounding up the Kaltari and demanding we swear allegiance. But the Kaltari, we were free spirits. To shackle ourselves to something as transient as a crown seemed unthinkable. We continued to resist, but we werenāt prepared for the ferocity of the Javstani retribution.
"They started rounding us up. In less then a year those of us that werenāt killed by patriots were in the Javstani camps, all the clans that wouldn't submit, put to work for the real citizens of Jowston. The men and women were put to work harvesting, planting, mining, any kind of backbreaking labor too base for real citizens to do. The children who were too young to work, like me, we were used as insurance. Keep working hard and we keep your children clothed, fed, and alive." Luc laughed morbidly and a little hysterically.
You donāt have to go on. Aaron almost said it, but when he wanted too, he found that he needed Luc to finish. He needed to know this. Jowston was his enemy. He had to make himself understand how they worked, make himself hate them.
"After Iād been in the camp for a couple of years the Javstani in charge of the camp got moved up in rank, and his second in command got placed in control. This was a man whoād grown up spoon-fed on Javstani propaganda. He kept a lot looser leash on the men. The old head had hated us, but realized we were valuable workers. This man was a fanatic. Within a few weeks, almost everyone, including me, had been marked." Lucās hand came up to rest on his clothing over his scar, seemingly without realizing it.
"But it got worse. No matter how hard the Kaltari worked, it was never hard enough. No matter how much we did, we never did enough. It was never enough. The Javstani was smart enough to realize that killing them wouldnāt make the work get done better, so instead·he started turning the guards loose on the children when·when·" Lucās voice broke, and he had to stop. For a moment he sat there silently, his shoulders shaking.
Aaron reached out and put a hand on Lucās shoulder, but he flinched away. "Donāt," Luc whispered to him. "I just need a moment." Luc wrapped his arms around himself and started rocking back and forth, head still down.
"They enjoyed it. We were just Kaltari, we were scum. It was a game to them. At first it was just beatings, the occasional·the occasional execution," he forced it out through clenched teeth. "But it got worse. More children started dying, the beatings got worse and worse and started turning into torture. I guess·I guess it was only a matter of time before one of those Javstani bastards realized that even if they didnāt have women at the camp, they did have sub-human Kaltari children."
Aaron gasped in horror. "Oh, Luc. Oh, my god."
"The rapes became more and more frequent, male or female, they didnāt care ö itās not like you were human. The beatings got worse, more people were dying, the Kaltari and the other prisoners were working so hard, trying to save their children, that they just started dropping where they worked - one moment theyād be working and the next moment, their hearts would stop.
"In a way, I was lucky. I was raped, I was beaten, I was tortured and tormented, but Iām still alive. I even got a chance to escape. I didnāt even have the clothes on my back, or a weapon, or anything, but the outside had to be better then in the camp. But I blew it. They caught me. I couldnāt escape."
"That was when Leknaat saved me. Sheād been going to the camps, trying to free the survivors, but always there was more then one member of each clan left alive. But by the time sheād helped everyone else at the camp·I was the only Kaltari left. But she saved me, and she took me in, made me her apprentice. She helped me put the pain away, helped me forget about·everything Iād lost."
Luc looked up at Aaron. "Donāt you see? Thatās why I have to do this. Sheās the only family I have. Without her·Iām lost. The world needs her, too. She knows so much." He paused. "Thatās the real reason we went to Jowston after Gregminster fell, Aaron. Weāre involved with an underground movement there, trying to undermine the Javstani control. With Leknaat·we can do it. I know Leknaatās not ready to die. Thereās nothing she regrets more then not being able to save all the people of all the clans, and I know sheās doing this by way of repentance.
"Aaron, please. I need you. Leknaat needs you. Jowston needs you. Please, Aaron. Help me."
* * *
"Young Master!" Gremio cried. "Itās unthinkable! You canāt!"
Aaron shook his head at Gremio. "I have to go. I need to see Leknaat."
"Master Aaron, youāre the President of the Toran Republic! You canāt just leave, and you certainly canāt just up and go to Jowston, of all places."
"Lucās story needs verification, Gremio. Trust me, I am thinking about Toran when I do this. If I blindly give the Soul Eater to Luc, it might turn out that he is a Jowston spy, or he might be caught before he can reach Leknaat and give her the rune. With me along, Luc will have double the chance of making it back to her, and even more if I decide to use the Rune." Using the Soul Eater, for any reason at all, was a repugnant thought to Aaron, but he would use it if he had too.
"So youāve decided to give the Soul Eater to Luc."
"You donāt approve."
"Itās not for me to judge, Young Master."
Aaron sighed. "Donāt do that to me, Gremio. I donāt need guilt." He waved away Gremioās apology. "And no, I havenāt decided yet. Luc came here without Leknaatās permission or approval. I need to know what she wants me to do. Only then will I make my decision."
"Youāre taking some awful risks, Young Master."
Aaron nodded. "I know, but I owe Leknaat a lot. Without her, Gregminster never would have fallen. Who wants to live forever anyway?" He chuckled.
"Then I canāt change your mind," Gremio sighed. "Very well then, when do we leave?"
"We donāt, Gremio. Gregminster needs your help to run properly, remember?" After the war, Aaron had tried to offer Gremio a military or administrative position, but had refused. He was now majordomo of the entire castle, a position he found very much to his liking.
"I have some very competent underlings, Young Master," Gremio objected.
Aaron put his hand on his friendās shoulder. "No, Gremio. Youāre needed here. Besides, I wonāt be going alone, either. Dragon is coming with us."
Gremio blinked. "Dragon? The Sword? But why?"
Aaron shrugged. "I donāt know. Evidently someone," Gremio flushed, "got word to Cleo that I was planning on leaving the country, in the hopes sheād manage to change my mind. Word of my leaving got back to Dragon. He was very·insistent when he came to see me. He would be useful, after all. I think·I think he may be dying too, Gremio. Cleo says heās been dormant more and more. That doesnāt explain why he wants to come, but if he does want to come, I really donāt think I could stop him."
"I did think she could change your mind," Gremio muttered. "Young Master, donāt go. Itās far too dangerous. You donāt owe Leknaat your life. She knows that youāre the President now, Aaron. She wouldnāt want you to get yourself killed."
Aaron nodded and shook his head. "But what about what I want, Gremio? Do you realize Iāve gone almost a whole year without once acting on one of my desires? Had you realized that? Aside from you, I donāt really have any friends, just politicians and associates, no matter how much some of them may like me. Just once, canāt I do something that Aaron McDohl feels he has to do, and not what someone else thinks he should? Gremio, look me in the eye and tell me Leknaat doesnāt deserve my best effort, whether or not she wants it. Tell me I donāt owe her."
Gremio looked away.
* * *
It didnāt take long for Aaron to work out the necessary details. He imposed upon the delegation of Dragon Knights to stop at Scarleticia on their way back to the Den and tell Milich Oppenheimer he was needed in Gregminster. A second messenger was dispatched to Kouan in the south, politely requesting the presence of Lepant in Gregminster as well. It was agreed that those two and the various military advisors that had hung on with Aaron after the war would watch the castle and keep track of the Republic while Aaron was gone.
The next thing Aaron needed was a viable cover story, something that would allow him to leave Gregminster without letting the people know their President was gone. Aaron went to Kasim for help formulating a plan.
As it turned out, Kasim was able to put together an almost perfect cover story. He was needed with Kwanda in the north anyhow, and was going to be returning to Shasarazade soon. Aaron would go with him under the story of a troop inspection. Dragon would have to be kept out of sight, much to his chagrin, but at least the Sword conceded to Aaron that it was important that no undue suspicions, either in Toran or Jowston, be raised at this time.
The plan was doubly useful ö first, it let Aaron slip out of Gregminster without letting anyone know where he was going, and it allowed him time to pick Kasimās brain for information about Jowston before he infiltrated it. He realized now how lax he had been in that area ö he had been so busy trying to repel Jowston that he never learned anything about them.
The Generals and their advisors realized that Aaron probably wasnāt going to be swayed from his course, so they got all of their many and varied objections out of the way quickly and then set about making sure that Aaron was as safe in Jowston as possible. Aaron actually contacted a certain forger of his acquaintance in the nearby town of Kaku to hurry to Gregminster with some identification that would get him and Luc through Jowstonās border guard. In addition, he was given a crash course in makeup and disguise that would allow him to pass as a citizen of Jowston under basic scrutiny. Luc, of course, with his lighter Jowston coloring and slighter build, needed no such assistance.
"Cosmetically," he explained, "thereās no difference between a Kaltari ö between me ö and a Javstani, or any of the other tribes. The divisions were more ephemeral."
Once Luc, Aaron and Dragon reached the floating fortress, they would be largely on their own. Kasim would outfit them with Jowston gear an appropriate boat, and they would follow the channel north from Shasarazade into Jowston. With any luck, they would avoid most of the border guard that way, which was important since Aaron would only appear to be of Jowston if he was casually examined. The most dangerous part of the plan would be leaving Jowston once Aaron had decided what to do about Leknaat. Luc was not willing to give the long distance teleportation another try, since the first had almost killed him. In addition, Liukan was adamant in forbidding Luc to attempt the feat again without strict supervision from someone trained in that almost lost art ö presumably Leknaat. Aaron thought, but did not say, that this was extra incentive to save Leknaat ö she would almost certainly have such a capacity. If push came to shove, Kasimās troops would be ready to come to their aid if they could, and Aaron might even have the Soul Eater when he returned. And, as repugnant as the thought of employing the Cursed Rune was to Aaron, Lucās story still rung in his ears.
The lesser of two evils.
Aaron shifted uncomfortably and tugged in annoyance at the scabbard slung across his back, wishing for his staff.
"Stop fidgeting," Dragon snapped. "People will think youāre not used to wearing me."
"Iām not," Aaron replied irritably, staring down the riverās expanse and shifting the tiller a little. The boat responded easily to his touch, the current was gentle and the craftsmanship superb. "Why canāt I just stow you down below, anyhow?"
"Because itās cramped, and dark, and you owe me at least this much. Besides, if you have me for protection, you might not need the Soul Eater to defend yourself. As potent as my cursed brother is, he does make a lot of noise."
"Right." Aaron glanced irritably at Luc, stretched out on the deck of their small boat, fast asleep. He knew his annoyance was irritable, since Luc did pull his share, and, after all, the younger boy was smaller and weaker than Aaron. But not for the first time did Aaron wish that Luc would risk using the Wind Rune to at least speed their travel. "Youāre expecting trouble?"
"I never know what to expect," Dragon replied. "It keeps me alert. You should adopt that philosophy yourself."
"Well, if youāre going to stay up here, and on my back, youāre going to have to answer some questions of mine."
There was a silence. "I can try. But it depends on what you want to know."
Aaron nodded. "All right. Youāve come with us because youāre dying, arenāt you? It has something to do with that, doesnāt it?"
"Yes," the Sword replied flatly. "My power is going out of this world. Weāre all dimming, you know. In a few millennia that pretty Rune of yours will curl up and fall asleep, just like all of us will. Some sooner than others. I was foolish. I made the mistake of bonding to another, even after all these years. We True Runes try to avoid bonding as deeply as our lesser progeny do; if the bond is shattered, it weakens us." Dragon hesitated again.
"But something drew me to Viktor, the same as something drew the Soul Eater to you. It never fully committed to that friend of yours, you know. He always resisted. In many ways, you are the ultimate host of the Soul Eater, able to reconcile its powers with what is requires of you. It could bond again, more easily if you abandoned it, but never as deeply."
"And so, when Viktor died, you lost a lot of your power?"
"Just so, just so," the Sword replied wistfully. "It went away with him. Being trapped within this damned sword doesnāt help, either. It limits me, just as the glove limits the Soul Eater. A failsafe against our power. Did it ever occur to you, boy, that you have not only one, but two of the Twenty-Seven in your possession? Have you ever wanted to reverse the orbit of the earth? You could, if you wanted to."
"Reverse the what of the earth?"
"Who put you in the Sword?"
Dragon barked a laugh. "I would love to know. Boy, I have existed for as long as time. I have seen cultures far more enlightened than your Scarlet Moon rise and fall, and they are mere fleeting impressions on my memory. Trying to remember too far back is like trying to recall some long ago dream. Someone took it upon themselves to limit the power of the True Runes by binding them within physical objects, to limit their abilities by preventing a skin-to-power bond. They caught both the Soul Eater and myself off guard, whoever they may have been, but as I recall, they tried the same trick against the Star Rune and she annihilated them. Not before they sealed her up in a ring, though." There was a sharp edge of pain in his voice.
"Never mind!" Dragon snapped. "Itās not important, and I didnāt ask for your sympathy. Take me off. I want to sleep now, and that mage friend of yours is waking up."
Aaron paused as he unstrapped the swordbelt with relief and laid it on the deck. "Can I save Leknaat?"
Dragon sighed. "Possibly. Do you think you can afford to do so, that is the real question. The Soul Eater is probably more powerful within you then you know. Could you cut off your hand if it would save Leknaat? Pluck out an eyeball? Of course you could. Now put me down."
* * *
Five days out, Aaron awakened to the feeling of warm sunlight on his body, soaking through his clothing to heat his flesh. He was suddenly aware that the rocking movement of the boat had stilled, and stopped. Looking up, blinking against the brightness of the light, he saw Luc perched upon the prow, watching him.
"Weāre here," the mage reported. "Itās just a short walk through the woods to Jirantlee, where Leknaat is staying. Weāll meet some friends there."
"We should bathe, first."
Luc nodded briskly. "Probably. Grab your Sword, and come on. Bring your makeup, too. Youāll need to reapply it afterwards."
A few minutes later, Aaron met Luc down by the waterside, and Luc lead him back into the bushes. Eager to wash away the grim of a weekās travel, Aaron immediately began to strip. He paused as he pulled his shirt off, seeing Luc watching him, nervously licking his lips.
"I·ah·I think Iāll just go down the river aways, wash out my clothes and bathe privately, okay? No offense." Without waiting for a response, Luc turned and vanished quickly into the bushes.
Cursing himself, Aaron stripped off the rest of his clothes and slid into the cold water. He shouldāve realized something like that and been more considerate·of course Luc would be shy, with a Javstani brand on his chest for all to see. Living in Jowston for the last year, probably for the first time since Leknaat had saved him, must have taught Luc to guard himself carefully.
Or maybe it went deeper than that. Scrubbing himself down with sand, Aaron tried to imagine what the camps must have been like for Luc. Endless days of mindless work, cramped conditions, bad food, bad water·his imagination filled in the details Luc had left out. The threat of death always over your head, the only alternatives being beaten, or raped, or worse·
Stepping out of the water, Aaron grabbed his clothes and quickly washed them out in the river, then wrung them out and donned them. Unsure where he was supposed to meet Luc, he reapplied his makeup, picked up Dragon, and headed back for the boat.
Luc was waiting for him, already full dressed and washed, though his clothes seemed to be still damp. "Not bad," he told Aaron, and it took him a moment to realize that Luc was referring to his makeup. "Shall we go?"
"Sure. Whatās Jirtantlee, anyhow?"
Luc began to walk, leaving Aaron to catch up. "Jirantlee is the seat of one of the more prominent Javstani houses, the Jiran di Javstani. Itās their country home. Itās a big manor house out in the middle of nowhere, which suits us just fine."
"Youāre holed up in a Javstani manor?"
"Theyāre sympathizers," Luc replied. "The old lord, Tamder Jiran di Javstani, was a staunch supporter of the Republicās formation, and was the head of one of the camps, as I recall. When he died, he bequeathed everything to his twin children. Mordain Jiran di Javstani is the brother, and he holds a council seat in Jowstane, the capital. Althea Jiran di Javstani is his sister, and she spends most of her time with us in the manor. Theyāre both sympathizers."
"I see," Aaron replied. Kasim had mentioned Mordain di Javstani in passing, but hadnāt mentioned that the councilman had been a sympathizer, so even Kasim didnāt know. "Who else is there?"
"Not too many others," Luc replied. "Our numbers are still small, and right now weāre more concerned with finding dissatisfied citizens than actually enforcing our agenda. A lot of the true Clan bloodlines have been submerged into the Javstani, so thatās a lot harder than it sounds. But weāre making progress."
They walked in silence for several minutes, and then the woods opened up into a fertile looking valley, stretching out before them. Sprawled in the middle of the valley, a lonely looking road running up to its front gates, was the manor house that must be Jirantlee. It was big, and more heavily fortified than Īmanor houseā wouldāve suggested to Aaron, but given the tumultuous nature of Jowston politics, he wasnāt really surprised.
Aaron began to pick his way down the hill towards Jirantlee, but Luc hesitated. "Aaron," he said suddenly, and once again in his voice was the quality of a lost child. "What are you going to do? I mean, really do?"
The young man shrugged, looking upwards at the mage. "I donāt know, Luc. I have to do whatever is best for Toran, and as long as that doesnāt conflict with whatever is best for Leknaat, Iāll do what I can."
Luc sighed, and brushed past Aaron as he began the descent.
* * *
"I canāt believe you actually came!" Althea Jiran di Javstani repeated, pressing a hot cup of tea into Aaronās hands. "Iāve always wanted to meet you!" Althea was a slender woman who dressed efficiently, in comfortable looking brown clothes, and a plain white vest. The earthiness of her appearance was offset by the incredible wealth of her surroundings. She conducted herself in an endlessly optimistic manner, and was one of the few people Aaron had met on whom an endless smile didnāt seem facile or forced.
After a breathless greeting with Luc, the young man had raced upstairs to see Leknaat. Althea had quietly suggested that they both retire to the library and leave Luc alone for a few moments.
In between various greetings and proclamations of welcome, Aaron had managed to explain to Althea that their journey had gone yes, very well thank you, and no, they hadnāt had any trouble crossing the border, and no, he hadnāt decided what to yet, and yes, he knew how important Leknaat was. Altheaās smile never seemed to falter, even when Aaron was reticent to discuss Leknaat, and her spirits seemed perpetually high.
"Well of course, we all understand what pressures you must be working under. Iāve done my best to keep abreast of the situation in the south, but Iām afraid our information was sketchy at best. Leknaat cautioned Luc not to go, but he wouldnāt be stopped. If nothing else, thank you for bringing him back safely. Iāve been worried about him." She sighed as she sat down at a chair across from Aaron, and handed him a glass of sweet Jowston wine. He sipped at it as she spoke. "Heās been pushing himself hard, lately. The thought of losing Leknaat terrifies him, you know. Thatās Javstani influence, though he wouldnāt admit it. The Kaltari always saw death as a transition, a journey. It is the Javstani who saw it as something to be feared. It canāt be helped, I suppose. Leknaat isnāt really familiar with our ways, and Iām in no position to teach Luc, not being Kaltari myself."
"Youāve known him for a long time?"
"Oh, yes. Iāve known him since Leknaat brought him out of those camps." For the first time, her actual smile faltered. "He was such a broken boy. His sister, Meira, died in his arms, and the guards celebrated by taking him to the barracks for the night. He was so small, then, and he still is, but he seemed so much smaller. I think of him as my younger brother, and I missed him when he and Leknaat left for the Scarlet Moon Empire." She sipped her wine. "This business with Leknaat just shows you that not all wounds can heal. Luc is lucky. He has Leknaat, and sheās his ground. She filled the void those camps created in him." Althea paused. "He didnāt tell you about Meira, did he?"
Aaron hadnāt realized that the horror on his face was so naked. He covered it by taking a drink. "Iām sorry, but he didnāt. I didnāt know."
The aristocrat nodded, as if she expected this. "He doesnāt like to talk about Meira. They were quite close, but he canāt separate the memories of her death from the memories of what was done to him afterwards. Who treats a child that way? His sisterās death is something heāll never recover from, because he canāt even think about it without feeling guilt, and shame, and disgust.
"It sickens me, that people would do such a thing. To anyone, let alone a child. Iāll never understand the need to hate, and I guess thatās why Iām here. The bigger question now is, why are you here?"
"Iāve told you that," Aaron replied, caught off guard by the sudden shift in conversation.
"So you have. I just wonder if youāre being totally honest with yourself. Maybe you came so that you could find a reason not to give Leknaat the Rune, and not the other way around."
Aaron was silent, staring down into his wine, gently swirling it in the glass. He glanced up as the door to the library slowly opened. Luc stood in it, his eyes red from recently shed tears. Althea rose, but Luc waved her off. "Leknaatās awake," he reported, "and sheād like to speak to you, Aaron."
Luc went immediately to Leknaatās bedside when they both entered the room, but in spite of himself, Aaron stopped and stared. The once invincible frame of the seer had been bent and twisted by the abrupt ravaging of hungry time. Her hands lay small and withered upon the coverlet which embraced a thin, stick-like frame. Her hair lay lank and colorless about her skull-like face, and her empty eye-sockets, which once seemed natural and even beautiful, were now shriveled and hideous.
"Come in," Leknaat whispered, in a voice barely above a croak. "I may be blind but I can feel that sword on your back."
"Greetings, Seeress," Dragon intoned from Aaronās back. "I am sorry that we finally meet in this way."
Leknaat began to chuckle, but instead began to cough, her small body shaking horribly with each awful hack. Luc placed a hand on her shoulder to steady her, but she waved him off. "Iām fine," Leknaat whispered. "Iām fine." She looked up, blank eyes staring, searching for Aaron but unable to find him. "I imagine I am no worse of than you right now, honoured brother. You simply bear your agony with greater dignity. Come, Aaron, sit by me. It is hard for me to talk so loudly."
Aaron crossed the room quickly, still too stunned by the change in the seer to speak. Luc gestured impatiently at a chair across the bed from him, and Aaron sat down, unstrapping Dragon to lay across his lap.
"Luc, please leave us." Lucās head snapped up, eyes wide, and began to voice a protest, but Leknaatās reedy voice cut through his, still containing some of the old iron in it. Luc nodded assent, but Aaron could see tears filling his eyes. He left quickly, but before the door closed he caught a glimpse of Althea, standing outside.
"Althea is a good girl," Leknaat said. "Sheāll take good care of Luc, when I am gone."
"Donāt talk like that," Aaron replied without thinking.
Leknaat raised a hand, and Aaron took it gently, feeling the paper-like quality of her skin. "You donāt have to do me any favours, Aaron McDohl. My power is not gone yet, just my body. Listen to me, my child. You owe me nothing."
"Thatās not true. Leknaat, I will do anything in my power for you."
"You neednāt. Liukan cannot heal this, your armies cannot fight it. Look at me, Aaron. Iām not being held hostage or hurt or terrorized. Iām simply old. I am four hundred and twelve years old, and I simply happen to be feeling most of them lately. This is time, and it is inevitability."
"What is immortality," Dragon whispered, "but to forget? What is that worth?"
"Oh, itās not that," Leknaat replied. "I have had a joyful life. Luc is not mine, but I love him like a son, and I have done everything I can for him. But I cannot do what it is he asks of me, regardless."
"What does that mean?" Aaron asks.
Leknaat smiled a small smile. "Luc went from the horror of the camps to the horror of your war. Iād hoped that the war would educate him, make him see the violence begets violence, but it did not. He envisions a glorious conquest, the end of the Javstani, and it is not that simple.
"I cautioned him not to go to you, of course, but with my Rune gone I was powerless to stop him. I knew he would. He told you that he came to you in order to save my life, but he was wrong. On some level, I know he wishes me to live, but what he truly wants is the Soul Eater, though he does not know it. He wants its dark power. I do not, Aaron McDohl. Does that not free you?"
"No." Suddenly Aaron felt anger rising within him. He could see the unshed tears in Lucās eyes when he left, see the hidden pain he had ignored for so long. He saw in Jowston a corruption to parallel that of the Scarlet Moon. "No, it doesnāt. What happened here is wrong, Leknaat, wrong! I see that, in a way I never did. Luc is my friend."
"I see. So you, too, do this for Luc and not for me. Then give your Rune to him, Aaron McDohl. I do not want it."
"Why not?" Aaron pleaded. "Canāt you see how important you are? Do you want to die?"
Leknaat smiled again. "How can one who has lived so much know so little, hmm? Of course I do not wish to die, I wish to live, live as I have. But in all the millennia of its existence, the Soul Eater has only ever bowed itself fully to you. Only you can know the struggle you had to fight with both yourself and the Rune in order to win that victory. But what is strength in your could become corruption in me. With the Soul Eater on my hand, I would not be as I was. Even life is not worth that."
"I have told you. If you wish to depart this place without your Rune, you may give it to Luc. Or perhaps you see what I see? I love Luc as if he was my own blood, but I see his nature. With the power of the Soul Eater, how long do you think it would be before Luc di Kaltari began placing the Javstani in camps? It would corrupt his beautiful soul just as it would corrupt mine, and on him the corruption would run its course more quickly."
Aaron bowed his head. "I know that, I do. I think I always did. But Leknaat, I do care about you. I do, and I care about Luc as well. Let me help you, somehow. There must be something I can do for you."
"You may leave me for a time with my honoured brother of the Night. There is much I wish to say to him."
"I can do one better," Dragon said suddenly. "I will stay here, with you, Leknaat. My time is near upon me as well, I can feel it as strongly as I have ever felt anything."
"You honour me greatly."
"I do no such thing. I have waited many years to meet you, Leknaat the seer. It takes great strength to bind the Rune of the Gate and contain its power, and you are the only one who has ever succeeded at that."
* * *
Althea was waiting for Aaron when he came out of Leknaatās room. There was no sign of Luc. "I sent him off to lie down," Althea told him. "Iāll have dinner sent up to him. The others are out in the fields, and theyāll be back for supper. If you donāt mind, I think it were best that you ate alone."
"All right." Aaron could understand the reasoning. Such a situation would be awkward at best, with a neighboring ruler nearby, enemy of your enemy, and it would only be a matter of time before the question of Īhelpā came up. Aaron wanted to avoid such a situation at all costs. "Where would you like me to go?"
"You can use my brotherās bedroom. When heās in the city, itās empty. Iāll join you so you wonāt be lonely. Last thing I want is to seem an unwelcome host, least of all to the President of the Toran Republic." She turned to go, but Aaron caught her shoulder.
"Althea," he warned, "I want you to know that no matter what, I canāt commit against Jowston right now. If I do give you and your cause any help, itāll be because I can and because I think you can win, and itāll be small at best. Do you understand?"
Althea frowned, then nodded. "Yes, I suppose I do. And Iāll join you for dinner anyway."
* * *
"So youāre leaving."
Aaron looked up from stowing the last of his baggage safely in the prow of the boat and turned around. Luc stood on the shore, watching him in the faint morning sunlight. Aaron felt a sadness settle into his bones. "Iād hoped to be gone before you woke up."
"I can see that." Lucās voice was flat, but Aaron could see the white-knuckled grip he held on his walking staff. "Like a thief in the night."
Glancing down, Aaron tried to mask the hurt of those words. "Iām leaving Dragon."
"Because he asked to stay and because heās old and because heās no good to you. Thanks a lot, Aaron." Luc leveled a derisive glare at Aaron. "Too much to ask you to remember the people who helped you get where you are, is it?"
"Thatās not fair at all."
Luc turned and started down the path towards Jirantlee. "Youāll pardon me if I donāt genuflect on the way out. Farewell, President."
Anger flashing to the surface, Aaron vaulted over the edge of the boat and ran to place himself between Luc and Jirantlee without even stopping to think. "Listen to me," he snapped, pressing one hand against Lucās thin chest. "Youāre right, Iām leaving, and Iām leaving with the Soul Eater. And yes, Iām leaving Dragon because heās old and dying and no use to me or anyone anymore.
"But you know something, Luc di Kaltari? I hate it, and I hate myself for doing. But I do what I do because Iāve got no other choice, because no matter what Aaron McDohl wants Iām the President first. A year ago I stopped being me so I could be everyone in the Toran Republic. Do you have any idea how much that weighs on me? Did you even stop to think that maybe the Soul Eater is all thatās keeping Jowston from putting me and my people in camps?"
Luc scowled and knocked Aaronās hand aside with his staff. "Donāt sermonize at me, Aaron," he hissed. "To you, this is just some afternoon outing, isnāt it? A quick sailing trip, a walk in the woods, warm dinner with a beautiful woman, then go home. Nobody ever asked you to lie away in the dark of a communal bunk with no company but your bruises. Nobody ever asked you to hold your sister in your arms while she died. When you've gone, Aaron, Iāll still be fighting a war. Easy for you to say you need the Soul Eater ö youāre going to home to Gremio and your castle. It doesnāt matter that youāre killing Leknaat. Is immortality so important to you?"
"I held my father in my arms while he died."
Luc stopped speaking abruptly. For a moment he seemed at a loss for words. "I·"
Shaking his head sadly, Aaron stepped around Luc and headed for the boat. "I was hoping we could part as friends, maybe." He glanced over his shoulder. Luc stood by the shore, head down, back to Aaron. The President sighed. "Goodbye, Luc." He began to untie the mooring.
"Aaron·" Luc whispered. "Aaron, please."
Aaron stopped his work, feeling the lump rise in his throat. Here before him was neither warrior nor mage, but a little boy pleading for the life of someone he loved. He held up his hand, palm outwards, and let Luc take in the flickering red Soul Eater with his eyes. "You donāt want this, Luc," he whispered. "Neither does Leknaat. Do you want to live your life a battle, Luc? Struggling with the darkness growing inside you? Do you? I have to live every minute of every day knowing that I won this throne on the backs of my father, Odessa, Ted·knowing that theyāre still inside of the Rune, not at peace. I live in a battle to keep control of it, Luc, and the only comfort I have is that I can use the Runeās powers to accomplish something good.
"But you donāt want this, Luc, not for Leknaat and not for yourself. Maybe Leknaat would live on, but she wouldnāt be Leknaat anymore. Try to understand.
"I wish I could do something, Luc, I do. But I canāt, because Iām the President of the Toran Republic now. Iām no longer Master Aaron of the Liberation Army." Aaron heard the bitterness in his voice but did nothing to mask it. "Iām no longer much of anything anymore, except the President." Twisting his hand around, he looked at the Soul Eater, entranced by its flickering gaze. "Thatāll change, someday. When Toran is settled and Jowston is quiet, and then I promise Iāll do whatever I can. I donāt want the Soul Eater, I hate the Soul Eater, but my people need the Soul Eater. Luc, Iām sorry."
Luc had turned when Aaron raised the Soul Eater; when the President finished speaking the boy simply stood staring at him for several moments. Finally Luc clenched his eyes shut as if he was trying to contain tears. "Go home, Aaron McDohl. Just go away." Turning, Luc walked down the path back towards Jirantlee. Aaron almost called out once, but as Luc crested the ridge he saw another shape join him. Althea wrapped one arm about Lucās shoulders and held him while he cried.
Aaron looked back once as he sailed away, and saw Althea standing in silhouette, still holding Luc, rocking slowly back and forth as if to calm him. Seeing him watching, she raised one arm in a slow wave, then turned and lead Luc down the path.
Settling down at the tiller, Aaron blinked away tears. I did the right thing, he thought, but that doesnāt mean I like it. Or like myself.
The life of a President. Leknaat, Luc·Iām sorry.
Aaron firmly took hold of the tiller and set a course for home.