After an instant, Atros awoke on the rough pallet in Pravo’s house. The full light of the sun bore down upon his face through a high window. Atros shielded his eyes in the shadow of bundle of roots hanging in the window to dry. He guessed that was very late in the afternoon. Pravo must have let him sleep through the morning.
Atros was still wrapped in his tattered gray cloak, which he now noticed was spattered with black mud. He had even slept in his high, calf skin boots. A myriad of small untreated cuts lay across his arms and chest. His arms and back were very sore from the exertions of the previous night and the ravages of the hard pallet. Atros wondered at this. Pravo had been so meticulous in his care for Darla, spoiling her with a luxurious down bed and an expensive physician, while ignoring Atros entirely. Hadn’t the physician been concerned for a bleeding man lying across the entrance to the house? Yes, Darla was a more serious case and should be treated first, but wouldn’t it be natural to see to him after she had been dealt with. It was very puzzling. He wished to question Pravo though he was uncertain whether he should draw attention to Pravo’s oversight.
But now, he must see to Darla’s health. He rose carefully but was still rewarded with fresh stabs of pain. He would pay dearly for over spending himself last night. Seeing that he was already dressed, he could avoid going through that morning ritual, at least until after he saw Darla. It was rather obvious that he would need a fresh change of clothing soon though. Still, it would worry Darla unnecessarily if she saw so much mud and dried blood. Trying not to make too great of a mess on Pravo’s floor, Atros quickly brushed off the cakes of dry mud from his clothing. Availing himself of the pitcher and basin he found on the shelf next to the low pallet, Atros washed his face and hands. Fortunately, most of his wounds appeared superficial if painful. He was very glad to be spared tortuous treatments of stitching or cauterizing. Having thoroughly prepared himself, he set out to find Darla.
With a few quick strides down the narrow back hall and around the corner, Atros arrived at the closed doorway to Darla’s room. He knocked softly but heard no response, so he slowly inched the doorway open and almost instantly gasped. Darla lay motionless, breathing only shallowly. The portion of her face not covered by thick gauze was white with pallor. The sight caused intense memories to overwhelm Atros momentarily. Memories of another life.
He entered the white and gray semi-private room slowly, timidly. The hollow echo of his footsteps had haunted him since leaving the elevator. The partial translucency of the fringeless partitioning curtains muffled the light of the drab, overcast day visible through the distant window. He passed the first partitioned bed without trying to glimpse one of the contributors to the intermittent buzzes and beeps plaguing the ward.
His steady stride faltered and stopped as his eyes fell on the tiny, pale figure lying rigid on the wide, white mattress next to the low window. For a moment the sight paralyzed his his body and mind in a flood of contradictory emotions: compassion, disgust, sympathy, terror, love, loathing, satisfaction, and remorse. But his mind choked them down.
How could she have deteriorated so much overnight? (A sleepless night for him, apparently something much worse for her.) The hospital frock dehumanized her in its half effort to allow modesty. It would have been better if they hadn’t made any pretenses. Her back was arched unnaturally upward in a tense strain. She seemed so much like a turtle that lay upset in the middle of the highway, waiting motionless..stunned for the next in an endless series of inconceivable abuses. He glanced at the pain stricken face peeking out from under the thick, restrictive bandaging, but he quickly looked away. Her eyes were open, staring unfocused at the wall lamp above her head.
“Mother…” he said softly, tentatively. She did not respond.
“Mother…” he called again, taking her hand in his own. It was cold…lifeless. The fatty flesh of her arms hung loosely from her bones. He saw a flicker in her eyes, almost a response.
“Mother…” he repeated leaning close to her ear, clutching her hand in his own.
“Dewar…Dewar,” she murmured turning her head from side to side, her eyes still unfocused.
“No, Mom, it’s me, Statsul…your son. Can you see me?”
But it was no use. She squirmed and thrashed about, so that Statsul was afraid she would pull the sensors off her neck and chest. He released her hand and it dropped to her side. She continued to call out “Dewar” for some time…the name of Statsul’s father, dead for more than a decade…. Finally, she became calm again. It was as if nothing had happened.
Statsul shrunk from the room and into the hall. Hands trembling, he took a plastic bottle from his coat pocket. He fumbled for a moment, took two capsules from the container, and popped them into his mouth. With the open bottle still in his left hand, he triggered the stainless steel water fountain with his right and swallowed the pills as the water gushed into his mouth. He turned and she was there, he choked. The ward nurse, a dark, middle aged woman with a once stunning figure and tired eyes. She took the bottle from his hands, glanced at it, closed it, and returned it to Statsul.
“Don Diagoros?” she said. Her accent was hardly noticeable.
“Yes…hmph…What can you tell me about my mother’s condition,” he stammered.
“We’re not allowed to discuss the patients, Don Diagoros. You’ll have to see a physician or an ablegate. The Legals, you know?”
“Oh,” he resigned and began a hesitant turn.
“But if you won’t tell anyone. I guess I can help.” The same qualities that made her a good nurse prevented her from not helping this man. “Dona Diagoros… I’m sorry, but she’s not responding to the medication, transvection treatments, or microsurgery. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t look good.” She hadn’t fully considered what she’d have to say when she agreed to help him. She was out of practice at this sort of thing.
“Oh…” he whispered barely audible.
“Her a..illness is just too advanced. If we’d only known sooner.. She should have had a genome map done years ago.”
Statsul mumbled something about her being a Dissenter.
“I see…Well, that’s her right…I’m sorry Don Diagoros but I must go now. The patients….” She made a brisk half turn on her flats and was gone in a blur of blue and white.
Statsul began a slow return to his mother’s bedside.
Atros was recalled from his flashback by the force of the door slamming into him from behind. While his mind had been distant, his body had walked into the room and closed the door behind him. He did not know how long he had stood there staring at Darla.
“Atros!” Pravo nearly shouted. “You startled me. I didn’t hurt you, did I?” Pravo asked entering the room after Atros had been jostled forward, allowing the door to open completely.
“No…” Atros stammered then recovering his composure added, “Do you have some fresh clothing and perhaps some food?”
“Yes, of course, how careless of me. The clothes first. You’re a mess… Through here in your room. I pointed them out last night. Don’t you remember?” Pravo asked leading Atros back to the room he had occupied.
“How is Darla? Has she awoken?” Atros responded with a question.
“Don’t worry, she’ll be fine. She’s just lost a great deal of blood. She’s slept since you left her last. The drugs the healer gave her for the pain make her sleep.” Pravo opened a chest in one corner of the room.
“Hhm….good. She would be in a great deal of pain now,” Atros said. “This one?” Atros asked pointing to a blue-gray woolen shirt.
“Yes, that’s fine. I have not worn that in years. Nearly since I was your age.”
Atros dressed himself in silence. Minutes past.
“You killed a man last night, didn’t you?” Pravo asked suddenly.
“Yes,no…no. I fought two but I killed no one.” Atros finished dressing, closed the chest, and sat on the lid.
“But you were involved.” Pravo’s stance was very tense.
“Yes, I was protecting myself.”
“And Darla.” Atros was uncertain. His hand unconsciously moved toward his boot knife. He pretended to tighten the lacings.
“It wasn’t a simple mugging, was it?” Pravo asked forcefully.
“You seem to know a great deal about it.” Atros still hoped to diffuse the situation. He tried to appear relaxed and calm, though if anything he was more anxious than the older man appeared.
“The word of murder in the streets travels quickly. And you told me something of it last night.”
“I did?” Atros paused. “Yes, I suppose I did.”
“But it wasn’t just a mugging, was it?”
“No, I don’t believe so,” Atros responded tentatively. He still couldn’t predict which way the confrontation would go.
Pravo sighed then admitted, “Atros, I’ve debated betraying you to the city guard since you arrived last night bloodied and torn.”
“Why didn’t you? I am really just a stranger to you.”
“I don’t know. I’m harboring a murderer and I don’t know….” Pravo’s voice softened as the tension of the past few moments began to drain from his pores.
“At first, I couldn’t because Darla needed immediate help. Later, I saw how much she loves and trusts you. I just couldn’t…..” Pravo shuffled his feet and brushed back his straggly graying hair. He was so occupied by his own thoughts that he had missed Atros’ flinch at his mentioning of love.
“Also, you intrigue me. We are alike and yet unlike. I’ve studied legends and myths all my life yearning for the mysterious and the exotic, and you appear on my door step late one night. I honestly don’t know what I should do.”
“But it’s not just that, is it?”
“No, it isn’t. But you’ll have to let me keep my own secrets,” Pravo said with a touch of humor.
Atros chuckled and agreed.
“You promised last night to tell me your story. Maybe that will help me make my decision.”
“You’ve already decided or you wouldn’t have said anything to me,” Atros accused playfully.
“Maybe,” Pravo smiled broadly, “but you still owe me that story.”
“I owe you a bit more than that, but if it will make you happy, I will try. You will pardon me if I omit details to protect myself?”
“I doubt that I could force a full confession from you,” Pravo responded a bit sarcastically.
“True. Well, where should I begin?” Atros said settling back.
“How did you learn so much? Where were you educated?” Pravo was suddenly transformed into an over eager schoolboy.
“I was the third son of a minor lord on a manor far to the east of here. I was trained to read and write by the parish priest because I was supposedly destined to the ministry, though I never really felt a religious conviction. I was more interested in scholarly pursuits even then. My childhood was relatively normal, though I had little time for anything but labor of some sort.”
“That is hardly what I expected,” Pravo interrupted. “I thought you were a street urchin or at least a city resident.”
“No, not until much later,” Atros began, paused, and resumed, “I lived quite contentedly on the manor until my late childhood. Then, I began to experience peculiar dreams. Frightening dreams. The dreams changed me.”
“What were the dreams like?” Pravo tooking a stool opposite Atros.
“Oh it is difficult to remember specifics now. I was very confused at that time. But most the dreams were about other places and other cultures. Upon awakening I could remember bits and pieces of things which were very unsettling.
“At first I told everyone about my dreams. Slowly, my family and friends grew frightened of me. Frightened of the strangeness in my dreams and the reflection of this strangeness in me. Rumors of possession spread quickly. My father decided that I should be sent to a distant monastic retreat. I assented, of course. I would never have gone against my father’s wishes. Not then…. But the retreat wasn’t dedicated to scholasticism as I had been lead to believe. I discovered that it was a prison for undesirables: the diseased…the deformed…and the insane. I was kept in that place for many months. I will not tell you what the conditions were like, but during that time I lost a portion of my sanity. The boundary between dreams and wakefulness slipped away. I lived fully and completely in my dreams.” Atros paused for long moments.
“You eventually escaped?” Pravo prompted after some time.
“In a way, I was released. I convinced the jailers to free me.” The volume of Atros’ voice trailed off in mid sentence.
“That easily? You just spoke to them and they released you?”
“Yes, something like that. Over the years, they’d grown rather shaky of mind themselves. I played on their fears until they complied with my wishes.” Atros paused then continued, “My mind was still very disordered. After leaving the asylum, I drifted, inhabiting slums and deserts, doing things I now regret. With time reason returned. I fought to drive off the dreams and I have continued that fight ever since,” Atros said finishing up quickly.
“But where did you read so much? What library has so many books?”
“I hoped to find release from my dreams in research. I traveled widely and searched broadly.”
“You understand this, don’t you?” Pravo asked in Cantonian, a long dead tongue of the region.
“Yes, I’ve picked up a number of languages,” Atros admitted without thinking.
“You could not have learned that from books, the Cantonese used runes not an alphabet. Who taught you such a thing?”
“Perhaps your friend Baughis?” Atros suggested.
“No, Baughis is too lazy to learn ancient languages. Who taught you, Atros?” Pravo nearly demanded.
“To tell the truth, I don’t remember. I simply understood your meaning. The tongue is related to the dialects still spoken in the far east where I have traveled. I picked things up as was necessary.”
“I’m not entirely satisfied with your answer, but I realize that I’m not likely to get any better response… You still have many secrets, Atros.”
“Yes, they are necessary.”
“Have you had any sorcerous training? I’d think you’d have a talent for that sort of thing.”
“No, only theory. I know nothing useful.”
“Unfortunate, if true.” Pravo was deciding that vague answers were more annoying than mysterious.
“Perhaps it would be even more unfortunate if I did.”
“I don’t get your meaning.” Pravo paused, but Atros did not volunteer anything. “Well, then never mind. You’re not planning to leave the house today, are you? Captain Koren is searching the streets for someone of your description.”
“Then last night’s fight was seen by someone?”
“No, apparently only your bandaging of Darla after the combat.”
“Hhm. Well, they did ambush us.”
“So you say. Who was the man who helped you with Darla? A short elderly man in a light coloured cloak. A physician of some sort?”
“An ally who most probably saved our lives.”
“Hhm. Then he killed the men found in the street?”
“Men? There was only one body when I left.”
“Two dead they say.”
“Two? Hhm…possibly…” Atros drifted off into deeper thoughts.
Growing tired of Atros’ show of cryptics and poetics, Pravo was rather glad to remember his hunger. An offer of food was quickly accepted by his guest. They spent several minutes in the preparation and consumption of a large, early dinner.
After the meal was completed, Atros and Pravo settled in comfortable chairs in the study just off the main entryway. Atros’ soreness lingered on, but the worst of his pain was already over. In any case, the effects of a thick, warm mead helped deaden what discomfort remained.
“Pravo, I must go….” Atros said slowly.
Pravo interrupted, “I thought we’d been over this. You are not well and the city guard are looking for you. You will go nowhere, it’s not safe.”
“No, Pravo, hear me out. There is more to it than that.”
“Okay, what is it?”
“I must go… and I must stay. I’m still being sought after both by the guard and by the men who attacked us last night…. They want me, not Darla. By being here, I endanger her. If I leave I will draw them off. But I also must stay and protect her. But my being here is likely to attract notice…. What did you tell the healer of me?” Atros asked suddenly.
“Why, nothing. He never saw you.”
“But I lay in the entryway last night.?.”
“Yes, but I brought him through the servant’s entrance. It was more convenient. He never saw you.”
“How did you explain Darla then? He did see her.”
“Yes, of course. I told him that she is my servant and that she had fallen in the cellar. He has his own ideas no doubt, but they don’t matter. I can trust him, he will say nothing to anyone without first consulting me.”
“How can you be so certain?”
“He’s kept my confidences in the past, besides he cannot afford my displeasure even at the expense of lying to the guard.”
“It’s not the guard of whom I’m concerned…You do trust him completely?” Atros belabored the point.
“Yes, as completely as is reasonable.”
“Good. And I am forced to trust you….You will take care of Darla should I decide to go?”
“I still think you should stay, but yes, of course, I would not let you move her. Not so soon.”
“Good. I don’t think anyone could trace us here except through your healer..whom you trust..Our meeting last night was fortuitous.”
“Yes, it was.”
“You haven’t suggested that I should turn myself in.?.”
“No. My impression was that my suggestions carried little weight.”
“No, I am still considering. I am taking you for your word in the matter of the healer, the weakest link in our safety. Don’t think that I don’t appreciate what you’ve done. It’s just that there is much more to this business than you know…more than you could know. In the end the decision is mine.”
“Then I will leave you. I will be reading by Darla’s bedside.”
“Good, call me if she awakes,” Atros said to Pravo as he departed.
Atros tried to reason out his situation. Though he would not insult the old man by saying so, he believed Pravo was poorly qualified to protect Darla, though he did seem devoted to her care. To leave and continue his investigations, he must find someone capable of guarding her well. But he must leave to find such a person. He knew that in the end he would serve both Darla and himself better if he tried to uncover the parties involved rather than waiting for them to find him. He could not entrust his errands to anyone else. Also, though he denied it to himself, Atros wanted to leave Darla and Pravo. He had exposed his own weaknesses to them last night and now felt shame. But though such feelings influenced his decisions, Atros would never admit them in his carefully ordered patterns of reasoning. Finally Atros decided that he would leave Darla and Pravo, at least temporarily, on the basis that since he was in poor condition himself, he could not hope to defend Darla alone. His immediate presence or absence had little effect on Darla’s safety. He realized that he would be taking a chance if he went abroad now, particularly since he would have to return to some of his recent haunts, but he believed that the benefits outweighed the potential hazards.
Rising, he went to Darla’s room and told Pravo of his decision. He promised to return before morning unless he was being followed. Pravo once again tried to dissuade Atros from leaving (he half expected never to see Atros again) but fell silent once he realized that Atros could be more stubborn than himself.
Atros left using the servant’s entrance, which proved to be more discrete. He wore a short brown cloak with the hood up, which did not unduly attract attention as the night had already grown cold. He proceeded to the tenement where he had been staying through an indirect route over well traveled streets. He saw groups of city guardsmen twice (Where had they been last night?) but passed by them without incident.
Arriving at the inn, he was recognized by the landlady which gave him a momentary start. The landlady seemed to know something was in the air because she quietly signaled him into a covered stairway for a private conference. The grubby matron told Atros that men had broken into his apartment that morning but were gone now. As soon as she completed that statement Atros launched himself up the stairway and through his front door. The sight which greeted him wrenched at his gut.
The room had been ransacked for some unknown purpose. The simple wooden table Atros had used as a desk was overturned, the stiff back chairs broken. Papers splattered with dried ink lay everywhere. But it was the absence of the piles of books that drew Atros’ attention. Looking about the rummage he could see a few scattered about, but not nearly enough to account for them all. With fear in his heart Atros turned to the stone fireplace, the view of which was obstructed by the overturned table.
As he dreaded, the charred remains of dozens of volumes were apparent. Atros sank to his knees, his hands sifting idly through the remains of the irreplaceable tomes. Atros’ head fell back, his voice a screech of pain. “FOR THIS THERE WILL BE BLOOD!” he vowed to the heavens. For long moments his ears were filled by the sound of his agonized heart and the dry sobs of his breathing.
Then he heard the drone of a voice, some one had been addressing him for sometime. He turned to see the landlady had entered the room. She was explaining why she hadn’t called the guard yet, why it wasn’t her fault that they got in, why she couldn’t be expected to protect her tenants from armed men. Atros didn’t care.
He asked her to completely describe the men. She said that there had been three. It seemed she had an eye for detail. But after much questioning, Atros was sure that their leader had been the man who had struck Darla last night. They all seemed to be hired swords, he could try the local mercenary groups and taverns. Still, his chances were rather dismal in a city as large as Dargon. Atros told the landlady that she had been right not to involve the city watch and that he would be paying for the damages and vacating as soon as he sorted through his things. She left with a few more coins in her greasy bodice, satisfied.
Atros first discovery was that the vandals had been careless. A few of the most ancient tomes were proof against fire and had survived unscathed. Some others were only partially consumed. Atros sorted through the ashes with a full inventory of the room’s contents in mind. It did not take long to realize that about one third of the books were still missing. These seemed to be either highly ornate tomes or books written in the script of Baranur, which included several of Atros’ personal journals. Obviously, an uneducated ruffian had chosen which books to steal and which to destroy based on superficial appearances. Atros would teach that person what it was to play god.
Atros quietly gathered his salvageable belongings. In doing so he noticed a note which had lain face down on the floor. The note was on high quality vellum but was written in a rough hand. It read:
We grow tired of pursuing you. Now it is your turn to
come to us. Go to the abandoned millery east of Dargon as
soon as you are able. We don’t have to tell you not to
Atros decided it was about time to see a friend. He left that boarding house for the last time making sure that he was not followed. The burden he carried from that place weighed heavily on his weakened frame.