Virrila, who had been Kersh’s sponsor, stood in the doorway of the large room where Kersh had been accepted as a student just a few days before. She said, “He’s here, Tchad.”
Zarilt, the Tchad — teacher — of the students of his Way, was alone in the room, standing in front of the stone table that bore the five objects that made up the contents of the Treasury of Farevlin. He sighed, paused, and then nodded and gestured.
Virrila stepped to the side, out of sight, and Fessim, a short, swarthy man, took her place in the doorway and then started walking across the empty floor. Fessim, who had been summoned alone into the vault of the Treasury. Fessim, who had done the one thing that was forbidden here.
When Zarilt had become Treasurer upon the death of his Uncle Taddis, he’d had no regrets about leaving his former life behind. That life had consisted of him being a cooper, and a good one too. His barrels had been sought out by merchants and shop keepers who needed to keep their wares, from water to flour, safe. He had taken pride in his work, and had always striven to make the best barrels he possibly could.
Unfortunately, Zarilt’s home had been in a large city in one of the larger states of Farevlin, which had meant that he had not been the only cooper plying his trade. And some of his competition had preferred to make and sell their barrels shoddy and cheap, rather than of the highest quality. When Zarilt had complained to the masters of his guild, they had simply indicated that they had no interest in regulating the materials their members used, or the prices they charged. When Zarilt had pressed his complaint, he had been threatened with expulsion if he didn’t let the matter drop. He had returned home decidedly the worse for his trip; he had been firmly in the bad graces of his guild masters.
It had become harder and harder to make a living at his chosen craft. What with guild dues and state taxes and the increasingly frequent city fund levies, Zarilt had been forced to lower his standards and produce cheaper barrels, since he couldn’t afford to sell his better barrels at a loss.
And then there were the other trials of his former life, like slackard apprentices who’d had no love, or even aptitude, for coopering. They had only been apprenticing with him because they had been assigned to him by the guild. Some of them had been friends with the apprentices of other coopers who didn’t work their students nearly as hard as Zarilt did, which had earned him complaints and even more assiduously shirked duties. Only the guild could release an apprentice, but because of his reputation with the guild, Zarilt had been unable to get his troublemaking apprentices released or traded to another master.
All of that trouble had vanished when he had become Treasurer of Farevlin. Furthermore, since he had discovered his philosophy, his Way, and decided to spread that philosophy to others, his shoulders had stayed free of the weight of responsibility. Except for one thing, the thing that brought Fessim to him today. For Fessim was going to be expelled today, and he would gladly have gone back to his old life to avoid that task, as necessary as it was to the health of his informal philosophical school.
Fessim halted his walk across the floor several paces in front of Zarilt, and at a gesture from him, knelt. Zarilt grabbed the chair next to him and sat — he wasn’t young enough any more to kneel for any long period of time, but he didn’t want to tower over the other man.
He looked at Fessim for a short while. Of course, Fessim knew why he was here. There were only a handful of reasons to be summoned alone in front of the Tchad, and Fessim didn’t qualify for any of them but one. Fessim’s brows were drawn together in a petulantly angry look, and his mouth was compressed into a thin line.
“Fessim,” Zarilt finally began, “you know why you are here. It is my duty, my only duty beyond educating my students, to keep them safe. To provide an environment here where they can contemplate my message, and find their way to the Way. You have disrupted that environment, disturbed the calm of the student body, interrupted the learning of my students.
“Here at the Treasury, all are equal. Everyone takes turns doing just enough to keep us all alive and healthy. Everyone takes turns working in the fields, or shepherding the animals, cleaning the rooms, cooking, making repairs as required, all the little things that must be done on a daily basis. With so many hands, the work goes quickly, and all of my students have plenty of free time, time to themselves, time to study the words of my Way if that is what they wish.
“But not you. You wanted to change things, to make yourself more than equal, which meant making others less than equal. You started by trading food for not having to do your share of the work. Then you began to make deals of favors between people, making yourself important to people who wanted some things that are not normally available here. And eventually, you ended up collecting favors instead of trading them, making people beholden to you, willing to do things to keep you happy with them.
“Which is exactly the kind of complication that my students come here to get away from. Masters and servants, haves and have-nots, always a situation where there is someone else to give you worth, to assign to you a status. Of all the things that you could have done wrong here, storing up power was the worst.
“You leave me no choice. You were warned several times early on, but every time you started again. You do not yet belong here, Fessim. You have not let go of the outside world enough to hear my words, to understand the Way. You must go.
“You will be given an escort to Bluebell Rock if you wish. You will leave here with only what you brought with you — nothing you gained here can be taken from here. It would be best if you were gone by evening. If at some time in the future you decide that you wish to try to learn my Way again, you will be welcomed back, but if you do return, you will have to earn our trust instead of being granted it automatically.”
Zarilt paused, pondering Fessim’s crime. He wasn’t the first to have fallen back into the ways of the outside world, of course. Zarilt remembered one of his early students, a man named Adamik, who had done much the same as Fessim. But, because Zarilt had just been learning what he needed to do to keep his school functioning, Adamik had been able to carry on longer, so that he formed a second tier of ‘haves’; people who were owed favors, but who in turn owed Adamik favors, further perpetuating false and destructive hierarchies. Adamik had been expelled, but that second tier had simply been chastised. And even though each of them had eventually left, they had at least been granted the chance to evaluate the Way without distractions once Adamik was gone.
However, Zarilt still didn’t understand what motivated these kinds of people to rebuild the feudal system in whatever environment they found themselves. Why had they left the real world in the first place, if that was the kind of thing they wanted?
He knew that asking his final question was futile, but he decided to do it anyway. Taking a deep breath, he said, “I have one last question for you, Fessim. Why?”
Fessim had been looking at the floor in front of his knees for the whole time Zarilt had been speaking, and he continued staring for quite a long time after Zarilt’s final question. So long, in fact, that Zarilt was just opening his mouth to dismiss his former student when Fessim’s head jerked up, eyes burning, mouth now frowning.
“You want to know why, Zarilt?” asked Fessim in a harsh voice. “You want to know why someone would try to usurp your position at the top of this collection of spineless sheep? The answer is, because I could. That’s why.”
Fessim rose quickly to his feet, and continued, “Your little pacifist army is weak, Zarilt. Your philosophy is worthless, your leadership is flawed, and your Way is an impossible dream. It is only a matter of time, Zarilt, until someone comes in here and takes all of your sheep-students away from you for slaves. You’ve collected the worthless, the dregs of society, the malcontents here in one convenient place for the slavers to come and take them. It will happen, Zarilt, someone will come and end your demented dream, and I’m glad I won’t be here when it does!”
Fessim turned and stormed to the doors. Without a backward glance, he slammed through them and vanished.
Zarilt looked after the former student for a while. He hadn’t expected that outburst, but it hadn’t bothered him either. Fessim simply hadn’t grasped the meaning of the Way, or why his students had sought him out. He hoped that Fessim would find whatever it was he was looking for.
With a shake of his head and a sigh, Zarilt stood from his chair and walked out of the room.
A sennight had passed since that first afternoon in the market square of Tilting Falls, and Torenda’s Troupe was on the move again, had been for three days. Three wagons pulled by two horses each carried all of their belongings, from the clothes of the players to the stage itself, broken down into pieces for convenience of transport. Each wagon could carry four people, but usually carried only two on the driver’s bench. The rest of the troupe walked, which was why they hadn’t yet reached Roebsach, their intended destination, normally only two days’ ride from Tilting Falls.
Thanj, the Troupe’s illusionist, and Naka, the master musician and one of the four leaders of the Troupe, rode in the front wagon, though that wagon wasn’t in the lead. That duty fell at that moment to Elin, the Troupe’s stage manager, and three of the other players who were walking in front of the wagon. It was a pleasant day in early fall, and the two on the driver’s bench had been passing the time in companionable silence, enjoying the trees and fields on either side of the trade road that lead west and somewhat south through that portion of Farevlin.
Eventually, Thanj broke the silence by turning to Naka and asking, “So, why are you still with the Troupe?”
Naka looked at Thanj with a surprised expression on her face, and responded with an incredulous, “What?”
Thanj hastily explained himself. “I … I mean, you could have settled down by now, couldn’t you? I remember last spring, how Duke Gazinnel offered you the position of her court musician, after saying how sorry she was that she couldn’t afford to sponsor the whole troupe. And I’ve heard that her offer wasn’t the first. So, for true, why didn’t you take it?”
“The obvious answer is right here,” Naka said, touching her hanging blue-disk earring. “You know what these mean, and what’s more,” she continued, touching her opposite hip, “what these mean.”
Thanj got a faraway look in his eye momentarily, and nodded thoughtfully.
“I couldn’t leave the troupe, if it would mean leaving my bond-mates. But … but, they aren’t the only reason.”
Silence passed between them for a while, and Thanj, thinking he wasn’t going to get any further answer, was about to apologize for being so tactless when Naka continued.
“It’s … for as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to travel, Thanj. Almost needed to travel. Once I passed my apprenticeship at instrument making, the urge became almost unbearable. It wasn’t the romance of the road, the adventure of seeing new places and new people, though. Nothing like that. It was like there was something … some part of me, perhaps … out there, waiting for me to find it.
“When I found Torenda’s Troupe, and met Orla, Elin, and Kend for the first time, I thought I had found it, found that missing piece. And, to some extent, I had. I fit into their relationship so easily that it seemed a foregone conclusion — it was like we were destined to be together, we belonged together.
“But the wanderlust, the need to be on the move, to continue searching, only abated, it didn’t vanish. There is still something out there waiting to be found, Thanj. Something that draws me onward. Even if, by some horrible turn of bad luck, the bonding was broken …” Naka pinched her blue disk earring and muttered a word of propitiation to ward off that very same bad luck, then continued, “I would still need to be out traveling, looking for that something …”
Silence stretched again, and eventually, Thanj said, in a soft voice, “Oh.”
In the middle of Naka’s revelation, a few paces away at the front of the caravan, Elin had come to a fork in the road. A sign-post stood at the junction with an arrow pointing down each branch. Elin glanced at it, just to confirm that the road to Roebsach continued on before them, but she was surprised to find that the sign pointing to the southward branch was the one that bore the lettering for Roebsach.
She glanced over her shoulder, and debated halting the caravan while she made sure. She had thought that there weren’t supposed to be any turns off of the main trade road between Tilting Falls and Roebsach, but she could have been mistaken. She looked at the signpost again, and it was the lower sign, pointing south, that said Roebsach.
Shrugging, trusting the sign, she started out along the southward branch. The players followed, trusting Elin to lead them properly. Naka was still talking, and Thanj listening, when the lead wagon turned down the south path, the horses following the people in front of them in the absence of any instructions to the contrary.
The two players in the middle wagon looked at the signpost and wondered why the caravan had turned south. It was clear to them that the upper sign indicated Roebsach and pointed along the way they had been going all along. They knew, however, that Elin was leading just then, so she must have had a reason to deviate from the proper path.
Kend was driving the last wagon, with Orla sitting beside him. He had one hand on the reigns and one hand on her thigh, and they had been riding for a long time in companionable silence. But for most of that time, Kend had been working up to something. Just about the time that Elin steered the caravan south, Kend decided that the time had come.
“You recovered from your illness back in Tilting Falls quickly,” he said as evenly as he could.
Orla responded, after a beat, “Oh, it wasn’t anything serious … just a, just … nothing serious.”
“I see,” Kend said. He waited for a few moments, and then said, “I was talking to Janile a few days ago. She was telling me about the rest of that party in the inn’s common room, about some of the jokes that went around, about how Naka’s playing was, as usual, very well received. She even commented on how long after Elin and I went upstairs it was before Naka gave up playing, and then how much longer it was before you and she went upstairs … arm in arm.”
“I … I,” Orla stammered.
As Kend made to reply, the horses pulling the wagon took the turn south, following the people walking in front of them. Kend paused, looked over at the signpost, saw that the bottom, south-pointing sign said Roebsach, shrugged, and turned back to Orla.
“I’m not angry, Orla. I have no reason to be. I am, however, slightly disappointed. We’re all bonded, Orla, one unit, but we’re still separate people. I take it that you just wanted Naka that night, even though it was your turn in my bed, right?”
Orla nodded, and Kend continued, “Then all you had to do was ask. Obviously, you talked to the others about it, since they already knew what was going on. But you didn’t talk to me, and that hurts me, Orla. Why wasn’t I informed about your desire to switch? Did you think that I wouldn’t understand?”
Orla was silent, thinking about what had happened. She said, “When I was backstage that day, I mentioned to Elin that Naka had been over-tired the night before, and that I was a little sorry that it would be two days before she and I could be together again. Elin suggested a solution — that she and I switch turns. We discussed it with Naka, and she agreed. We … we didn’t think to ask you, since all of the other parties had agreed.
“That was rude of us, Kend, and I apologize. We simply weren’t thinking properly. What can we … I … do to make it up to you?”
“Don’t worry about it, Orla. Just remember, next time, that I wouldn’t mind being part of your discussions about who gets to sleep with me when. All right?”
“Absolutely, Kend. We’ll never leave you out again. I’ll make sure the others know. Maybe tonight we can set up two of the tents together, and all share the blankets together, eh?”
She took his smile for an assent, and slid closer to him on the bench, placing a hand on his thigh as well.
The wagon continued on at the rear of the caravan, traveling along a road that was getting narrower by the league. Trees closed in on both sides of the road, and a grassy hump appeared in the middle, indicating that the road wasn’t a well traveled one.
Eventually, Kend roused from his contemplation of the comparative ease with which problems in his current relationship got solved — certainly not his experience in his previous few relationships — and thought to wonder why the only trade road between Tilting Falls and Roebsach should be showing such signs of disuse.
He called a halt forward, and gradually the whole caravan slowed to a stop. Giving the wagon to two players, he and Orla worked their way forward along the very narrow road, picking up Naka and Thanj at the first wagon and stopping at the front of the caravan.
“What’s wrong?” asked Elin when the other three leaders arrived at the front.
“Are you sure we are going the right way?” asked Kend.
“It doesn’t make sense that the road to Roebsach should be this overgrown,” added Orla.
“Well,” said Elin, “the sign said that we should go south to Roebsach, and we did.”
One of the players standing behind them said, “Your pardon, Elianijit, but it did not. The top sign pointed the way we were going before, and said Roebsach on it. We thought that you knew a short cut, or had some other reason to take this branch.”
The four leaders of the Troupe looked at each other. Kend confirmed that he had seen the bottom sign pointing to Roebsach, but the other two leaders hadn’t seen the signpost, and of the players that had, all indicated that the top sign had indicated their intended destination.
Orla finally said, “Something odd happened back there, and we may never know what. But one thing is sure: we can’t turn the wagons around on this narrow road. We will just have to continue on until we find a wider portion, or someone who can tell us where this pathway leads.”
The caravan slowly started moving forward again, with the four leaders plus Thanj walking in front. The path didn’t get any worse, but it didn’t get any better either, and they came across no clearings until the light was fading as the sun set at the end of the day.
The clearing they found was to the side of a way-cabin that was designed to provide shelter for winter or storm-caught travelers. The wooden shack was small and had a crude stone chimney that leaned as if against a stiff wind. Since it was time to stop for the night anyway, Orla gave the command for the wagons to be parked in the clearing, the horses to be seen to, and camp to be set up. Meanwhile, the leading group took a look in the way-cabin.
The cabin was typical of its kind. It had a fireplace covering one wall, equipped for both heating and cooking, with a bread oven and all. One wall had shelves containing provisions and a door leading to a storeroom. Naka peeked into the storeroom to find more provisions and good sized stack of firewood. The opposite wall had six bunks, three over three, and one of them was occupied.
Kend went over to the occupied bunk, knelt, and found a dead body. It had obviously been lying there for a while. No large animals had been able to breach the cabin, but small animals, rodents and the like, had been able to get at the body. It was not a pretty sight.
There wasn’t anything identifiable about the corpse, including its sex. Picked apart clothes and blankets, bones and desiccated flesh were all that was left, except for a satchel hanging on a peg on the last wall.
Thanj took the satchel down and spilled its contents onto a table in one corner. Odds and ends were revealed: travel provisions, personal gear, some small coins, and a soft-cloth bag embroidered all over with silver and gold thread in a strange, blocky and angular script.
Elin opened the bag and pulled out a strange-looking piece of stone. Everyone gathered around to stare at it. It was wedge-shaped, about a foot from almost-point to arced base. It looked like it was an eighth, or maybe a sixth, of something large and circular that was thicker in the middle. One of the two large surfaces was perfectly smooth, while the other bore a carving of a falcon and inlaid silver, glass, and gold bands crisscrossing and interlacing in the area above the carving. The design was incomplete, as the bands were broken across the jagged wedge-edges. One band of glass seemed to originate from a large mass of glass in the center of the falcon image.
Thanj looked at the stone, commented, “How pretty … sort of,” and left to join the rest of the Troupe setting up the camp.
The remaining four just stared at the stone. All of them reached for it at the same moment, but three just touched it delicately with their fingers. Elin first touched the carved falcon, tracing its outline for several moments. Then she grasped the stone, held it, and lifted it, holding it up and staring at it. Kend, Orla and Naka gathered close around her, looking at it with her. Orla said, “What is it?”
“Important,” was the only answer that Elin could come up with, but everyone knew that she was right. She picked up the bag and returned the fragment to it. No one objected to her claiming the object — that was as right as the previous answer.
Elin slipped the bag onto her belt, and went to kneel by the side of the occupied bunk. “Thank you, fellow traveler, for bringing this object to us,” she said.
Kend said, “We will need to bury this one, so that the animals don’t defile the remains any further. And then, this way-cabin needs to be cleaned up somewhat. I wonder how long it has been since anyone has been this way? And I still wonder how we happened to be passing this way ourselves.”
A few days after the dismissal of Fessim, the vault room was full of students and silence. Zarilt sat by the stone altar and watched as most of his student body meditated. Attendance was not mandatory, yet all but a double handful of his students were here. Those who were not were attending to duties that could not be put off.
Some of his students claimed that it was easier to meditate when everyone else was doing it too. Zarilt thought that was probably true for them, but he hoped that someday, if their meditation bore the fruit it was intended to, they would find meditating alone just as rewarding as that done during the common meditation time.
Zarilt, who was able to meditate in the middle of the most crowded and noisy room, or even while holding a conversation with several people, found it restful to meditate with his students. There was something about the rhythm of the breathing of so many people, that started out sounding like the rumbling of an animal but which slowly changed to become a series of rises and falls as groups of people began to breathe in rhythm. It had only happened a few times that the entire room managed to get into synchronization, but those few times Zarilt had been almost overwhelmed by the energy of that union, the oneness of everyone being together. He never tried to direct his students into that state, knowing that it was better if they found it naturally.
Suddenly, the silence full of rhythmic breathing was shattered by the door of the vault slamming open. A student named Millip ran into the room, shouting, “Tchad! Tchad! He’s coming! He’s coming!”
The formerly-meditating students sat or stood up and started jabbering in confusion as Millip continued shouting his message as he ran right up to Zarilt and stopped, panting, fear plain on his face.
Zarilt said, “Silence, everyone, please!” His students quieted after a few repetitions of his command, and he continued, “Now tell me, Millip, why have you interrupted our meditation? Take your time, tell it slowly.”
Millip nodded, and took a deep breath. Then, he said, “I … I was waiting for the delivery from ‘Rock, and finally Lirkal shows up with the wagon but more important, he’s got news. He says a troubadour who was traveling through ‘Rock from the south gave it them direct. Bad news, real bad.
“Lirkal says that there’s an army growing in Drigalit, working to unite Farevlin by conquest. They’ve had some success with some small border states to the west, and now they’re coming here. Their leader, Warlord Adamik, wants something from here and intends to get it.”
A chaos of noise erupted again as students started shouting questions and comments, letting their fear out and calling on their teacher to help them, save them.
When Zarilt finally quieted them again, he said, “Please, my students, please control yourselves. You have nothing to fear. This warlord has no reason to hurt any of us. It is not for you or I to surrender the treasures stored here, and he knows that. No one need fear a thing.”
Noise erupted again, but Zarilt’s raised hand quieted them quickly. Instead of calling out, several students came to the front of the crowd and stood with their hands clasped in front of them, looking to their Tchad. Zarilt gestured to one, and that one bowed his head and spoke.
“Tchad, do you know this Warlord Adamik? Do you know what he seeks here?”
“Adamik was once one of my students, like you. And like you, he knows what is sheltered here in the Treasury. If his aim is, as Millip has relayed to us, the unifying of Farevlin by conquest, then I surmise that he wishes to take possession of Hekorivas, the Scepter of Unity.”
The student nodded, a thoughtful look in his eye, and then faded back into the crowd. Zarilt gestured to another of the front-standing students. She inclined her head in a bow and lifted it again, then said, “Should we not seek to prevent this warlord’s entry to the Treasury? Is that not your duty? There are many of us, and this place is, by accident or design, like a fortress.”
Zarilt shook his head sadly, and replied, “I do not doubt the resolve, nor the possible prowess of you my students, nor do I lightly refuse your help in the upholding of my duty. But, my students, combat is not part of the simplicity of the Way. You cannot achieve serenity by destroying others. The position of Treasurer is almost wholly ceremonial, else why entrust the job to only one? The treasures are protected, never fear.”
Zarilt’s calm, steady voice and confident demeanor served to communicate the same to his students. Several of the front-standing students melted back into the crowd without asking any questions, relieved by what they had heard. Zarilt nodded to one who remained. That one, Virrila, responded as had the other two, and spoke.
“Tchad, your pardon, but if the treasures are protected, would it not be better to leave? To find refuge for a time in Bluebell Rock, until Warlord Adamik has time to realize that his plans here are futile?”
Zarilt was silent for a moment, pondering his reply. Finally, he said, “Flight is also not of the Way. You cannot find serenity while fleeing every possible danger, nor do you need to flee once you have found that serenity.
“However, if any of you, my students, feel that Bluebell Rock would be safer than the Treasury during the incursion of the Warlord Adamik, you must act on that feeling. Go, if you wish, and return when you feel the danger is past. I shall understand.”
Virrila nodded, and retreated a few steps into the crowd. Zarilt gestured for another student to speak, while Virrila faded farther and farther back. She looked around as she moved, and saw that every single one of the other students was staring raptly at the Tchad, caught up in his confidence and serenity.
She reached the back of the crowd, and listened for a short while longer as Tchad Zarilt soothed his students’ fears and bolstered their resolve. Virrila wasn’t convinced. She remembered Adamik from his time as a student. He knew the Treasury, and he knew the treasures were protected. He had to have a plan, one that the Tchad’s ‘serenity’ wasn’t going to stop. She knew that Tchad Zarilt needed help; they *all* needed help. Since no one else thought so, she decided to be the one to fetch it.
She noticed Millip near the back of the crowd, and sidled over to him. “Millip, how long did Lirkal say it might be until the warlord arrives?”
Millip took a moment to register Virrila’s question, then turned distractedly, tearing himself away from his former concentration on the Tchad. “Ah … what? Oh, yes … The warlord was … um, only a few days away. Maybe half a sennight. Why?”
“No reason, no reason,” Virrila said, but Millip didn’t even hear her. She shook her head, then turned and walked out of the vault. She didn’t know where she was going to get help from that fast, but she was going to try.