The main temple hall was a room of a paradoxical nature. It rang with silence, thrummed with the sound of a distinct nothingness. To Hide’n, it was the most spacious place in all of Wingworth, the most spacious place he had ever known. The hall did not confine him with prejudice, nor did it shun him for reasons he could not fathom. It was a room that seemed to have a mind of its own, yet kept itself empty for the thoughts of others. On certain occasions, Lu’varch Rothund would address the Voices of the Tevh in this very room. Hide’n was never one to disregard the words of authority, but he often found himself disagreeing with the lu’varch. True to his role, he’d never once spoken up, though he would find himself in the hall again long after the rest had cleared out, contemplating the words of his immediate superior in front of the statues of Tevhlu and Tevhlen.
The hall had moods of its own, too; influencing and coaxing. On some days its patience spanned infinite acres, expanding far beyond its four walls; on others, it seemed more restless, seeming to want an escape from the prattling of beings who were so mundane, petty and naïve. It comforted and reprimanded and silenced and sang. Hide’n, who had been subject to a form of parental love that had been twisted by circumstance, would not have been ashamed to admit that the hall was many things to him—a mother’s womb, a mother’s embrace, and personified, the perfect candidate for kev’arch. He’d made a comment about the latter to Caswin once, but the alchemist had not understood. To this day, Hide’n was still certain that the hall would have made a better kev’arch than himself.
Lu’varch Rothund had once preached that impassivity was the key to serving the Tevh. He believed that emotion had no place in the compound, nor did it have a place within the Voices. Hide’n had not believed a word of the lu’varch’s lecture, which had been impassioned in its own way despite it having been delivered in a most absent manner. He’d seen the old man shake with laughter and watched tears of sadness and perhaps regret roll down his wizened cheeks. Hide’n believed that the lu’varch thought this all a fine jest. As a result, the kev’arch had been approached by many a trainee and re’arch over the years, usually a precocious child with too-old eyes, asking for advice on the best methods to rid him or herself of all emotion.
In his own way, Hide’n had tried to counteract the damage. Though he was rather reserved by nature, he’d developed a sense of humour which could be wry at times and encouraging at others. Since he’d become kev’arch, he’d made deliberate efforts to emulate Tzicaugh when he felt that it would help his cause without contradicting his nature. He learnt that there was never a single method of communication which worked with all people. With some, he learnt to be more direct with motivation, and honest with disappointment. With others, he learnt to be more indirect and subtle with criticism, and open with praise. Unconsciously, he’d practised on Caswin—the ideal subject, given his tendency towards suspicion—when they’d still been close.
Hide’n missed those days. He would think about them from time to time, though he rarely allowed himself to dwell on the memories. Though engaging in intimate relations with another was not prohibited by the Book of Tevh, many of the Voices had chosen to walk the path of celibacy. It had not been a conscious choice, but Hide’n was sure that Caswin was the last person he had been and would ever be physically intimate with.
There were too many people to watch, to guide. Caswin had given him as much pain as he’d had happiness. There’d been tranquillity, and anger which roiled like storm clouds in the distance before plunging the world into an apathetic grey. Hide’n had enjoyed the quieter periods, but the more tumultuous ones had caused him to feel impaired, in both his role as a partner and as kev’arch. On sleepless nights, he would obscure his presence and walk along the fringe of the fer’endel or the rooftops of Wingworth, thinking about what Rothund had said. Had the lu’varch been right after all? Wandering above the streets and along the edges of the town was an activity which made it hard for Hide’n to doubt the validity of the lu’varch’s assessment.
In his solitude, he was everything which was required of the kev’arch, the perfect vessel for the Tevh.
July found Hide’n kneeling before the great statues of Tevh. There were four other cushions beside him, still bearing faint indents showing where four other re’archs had knelt in silent communion with the gods. Hide’n, as usual, was the last to leave. The evening light filtered into the hall through the countless gaps in the eaves, and the wooden floors took on the dappled pattern of an owl’s wings. In the half light, the statues seemed almost benevolent. July was unused to seeing them this way; in better lighting, they were usually rather menacing. He let his eyes wander over the ancient stone, standing as still as he could as though he were carved from the very same material.
Tevhlen stood on the right of the dais, her enormous wings outstretched and pointing towards the roof of the temple. Her curved beak cried out a perpetual scream, and her bare breasts hung over a feathered belly. She struck a terrifying figure, from the tips of her wings to the claws of her leathery feet, half woman, half ko-atwor. She had many names amongst the townsfolk, some of them unnecessarily descriptive, and some which even conflicted with her commonly accepted role in the Books. She was known as Harbinger of Bloodstorms, Lady of Carrion, Fearless Lady, the Great Harpy, and dozens of other names in languages, some of them so obscure that they seemed to be under the threat of being taken through the doors of Tevhlen herself. To July, she’d always been Death—nothing more. He didn’t see the point in pretty language for plain truths. He’d said this to Hide’n once, and the kev’arch had agreed that it was indeed a practical way of thinking.
Tevhlu sat curled up at his twin’s feet, a many-legged creature with a scaly, segmented body and two faces—a centipede. One of the faces had a mouth full of dagger-like teeth, but otherwise looked more human than the other. The second had bulging eyes and a proboscis. It was said that Tevhlu bit with one face and drained with the other, feeding on luck and leaving misfortune in its place. On occasion, his voraciousness left a victim for his sister. Unlike Tevhlen, Tevhlu had a mere handful of names. July was sure that there were more warding signs than names for the god of disaster. While Death was the inevitable end and in certain cases, even welcome, Disaster was best when avoided or averted. Nevertheless, the twin gods were inseparable, and it was impossible to be the voice of one without also speaking for the other. Though Caswin had found it hard to understand, July could see why some of the ordinary folk viewed the Voices with a mixture of disgust and reverence.
“Hide’n-imyer,” sang July, crouching behind the kev’arch. The nickname tumbled easily from his lips, one that had been in use since July had sat with Hide’n for a lesson in the old tongue more than ten winters ago. For some reason, he’d been taken by the word for ‘melon’ they’d come across in a poem about the harvest, and July had spent the better part of an hour repeating it and laughing at the sound.
“I heard you come in, you know. Sensed it, too.” There was an indulgent smile in Hide’n’s reply.
“Oh?” The younger man played along. He pressed his lips into an answering smile, wide-eyed like a child. Then he got into a cross-legged position on the cushion to Hide’n’s left and leaned forward on his knuckles, looking like a curious ape of some sort. Unable to be still for long, he started to rock back and forth as he observed the other’s expression.
“You’re worried about me,” the kev’arch stated simply. “I recall you once mentioning that you find it difficult to converse before the Tevh.”
Caught, July froze. “Cas has shut himself in,” he said without preamble. “In his workroom, I mean. The day before, I approached him, but was turned away. I’ve been going back, but all I’ve seen of him is the light from his lumen device, through the gap under the door. I don’t think he’s been eating at all. You too, for that matter. Tea is not food.”
“That is a matter of opinion,” Hide’n replied in a mild voice. He got to his feet, gesturing for July to stand as well. “Let’s take this conversation to my quarters,” he said as he gathered up the five worn cushions on the ground, catching them effortlessly as they flew into his arms. “I suspect that we are about to have a discussion that even I would be uncomfortable to participate in while under the gaze of the Tevh.”
The route to Hide’n’s quarters was well-lit, a stark contrast to the shadowed dreaminess of the main hall. They seemed to have stepped out of a night-swept sea, and July was briefly reminded of the world under the ice, only glad to be touched now by the warm glow of the torches although the air was still rather chilly. He pulled his jacket tighter around his body, grateful that they would soon be in Hide’n’s room which was likely being kept heated by one of the kev’arch’s mage lights.
They reached the alcove and the drapes parted before them. Hide’n placed his left palm flat against the door where a doorknob would have been, had this been the room of anyone else but a manipulator. There was a palpable halt in all movement and even July held his breath despite having witnessed this many times before. The first few clicks had a certain rhythm to them. If it could be captured and set to repeat infinitely, one could have performed a dance, or at least some kind of jig to the sounds. The remaining sequence did not have a set rhythm, as the order in which the puzzle was solved was apparently not a fixed one.
Though July hadn’t an inkling what the locking mechanism looked like behind the surface of the door, he did not doubt that they contained a complex network of tumblers and latches that only a thief with immeasurable amounts of time and patience would be able to pick. The lock had been constructed by Caswin, and remained the sole item connected to him which, to this day, Hide’n had not gotten rid of.
The final tumbler moved into place and the door slid open. “I’ve got some crackers if you’re feeling peckish,” said Hide’n. “You know where to find them.”
“Indeed I do.” July made a beeline for the cupboard, eager to see what else he could find.
While the younger man rummaged through the shelves, Hide’n tended to his mage light, slowly drawing energy away from it as the room had gotten a little too warm for his liking. Where the average home might have a hearth, or larger buildings a brazier, the kev’arch kept his quarters heated with a ball of energy as effective as any fire. On days when he did not leave the temple grounds, he would conjure a small one and leave it hovering just above a small earthenware dish he kept in a corner of the room. Regardless of where he was, the mage light never left his consciousness, a small burning pinprick in the back of his mind. This feat had taken many years to perfect, but it had proven useful both as a simple training exercise and a practical method of keeping the room heated through the coldest seasons.
July had discovered the stash of sesame crackers and was arranging them on a plate. His mood seemed to have lightened considerably with the promise of food. Hide’n watched him fondly from the window seat, for a moment seeing an awkward adolescent with the same mop of dark hair and left eye which saw nothing. Sometimes, it was hard to remember that July was no longer an adolescent but a young man of twenty-six. Despite knowing about the duellist’s involvement with Caswin, he could neither fault the former, nor hold a grudge against the latter. After all, Hide’n himself had been the one to end it for good, and he would not allow his decisions to get in the way of others’ lives.
“Thank you,” he said when July brought the plate over.
“Anything for Hide’n-imyer,” July replied, affecting an air of utter servitude.
Hide’n’s eyes crinkled with silent laughter before his lips curved into a smile. “Anything? Is that so? Now when will you grow tired of calling me that? In all honesty, I think it comes from the most depressing line of the poem I found the most bleak.”
“Vi d’afani ertaq tyest ii de’kivar cuvai-evak su’imyer.”
“Ah, yes. That very one.” The kev’arch held a hand against his forehead in mock despair. “The merchant swung his cudgel, and split the other’s head open like a melon.”
July shoved a cracker into his mouth to keep himself from dissolving into laughter.
“Any more merriment and one might forget why we are here at this hour.” Hide’n reached for the plate, but merely held the cracker in his hands, as though completely unaware that it was edible. “You mentioned the alchemist,” he said. “Though it is not unlike him to barricade himself within his workroom, it would not be wrong to assume that this time, he is hiding himself from the world for reasons other than to focus on his work.”
“He’s afraid you’ll turn up at his door.”
“I see no reason for him to fear such a thing.” Hide’n’s voice was devoid of emotion. There was a steely look in his eyes, or perhaps, thought July, it was merely a play of light.
There was an awkward silence which threatened to extend far into the night, until July deftly nabbed another cracker and broke it in two with a loud snap. “I see no reason for you to keep lying to yourself about this.”
The younger man cut him off before he could continue. “He’s afraid!” July repeated, voice raised. “I’m sorry,” he said much more softly. In all the years that July had known Hide’n, he’d never once grown angry with him. But now, everything felt out of place, everything he knew toppling off their respective axes.
Hide’n remained unperturbed, which only made July feel worse. “You intend to remind me that I remain in Caswin’s thoughts,” said the kev’arch calmly. “That we were once lovers. You intend to get me to confront him, drag him out of hiding, and drag every thought from his mind—ah, I did not mean to use that figure of speech, given my abilities…” He trailed off.
July did not deny the mild accusation, fiddling with the sesame cracker in his hands, breaking it into tiny pieces over the plate. I just want it to be true, he admitted to himself. If there was one person that did not seem to fear any other person at all, it was Caswin.
“However.” Hide’n let the word hang in the air, his normally still hands hovering in front of him as though he hadn’t any idea what to do with them, as though he was trying to shape a sentence with them. “However, I must let you know that I did lie to you. I can see why Caswin would be afraid of me. I see it perfectly well.” He closed his eyes and took a long, steadying breath.
“Then you have to go to him. Find out what he’s doing.” July was gritting his teeth so hard that the muscles in his jaw hurt. “Please.”
“Do you seek change, tiny one?” Hide’n asked the question with steel in his voice now, and his heart. He looked at the seated figure before him and saw a child’s naivete. Then he blinked, as, for just a moment, he could feel himself looking right through July, and the lu’varch’s watery stare had come to mind.
“I don’t seek it,” July replied. “It will come anyway. Change is the one that seeks us. Change seeks to charge you, to trample you with his mighty hooves, at least that’s what the poem says.”
“And yet, some seek him out.”
July shrugged. “Perhaps they enjoy the pain.”
“No. Those who seek Change do so with the intention to break him in. To ride upon his back as an equal, rather than wait for the great stallion to rear up on his hind legs and break their skull in two when they least expect it.” Hide’n looked like a man who’d trapped a thousand sighs within his own being. “Caswin wishes for change without having to suffer. He wishes to be an agent of change, and not a victim.”
“It’ll happen all the same. No one gets away when they call upon the great stallion. He answers to no one. There’s always the chance that he’ll turn on you and you’ll end up with a broken head all the same.”
Hide’n nodded. “Still, it does not stop some from dallying with the illusion that they have become his master.”
“Then go see Cas, please. You have to remind him that seeking change does not grant him immunity from its wrath.”
“You think that he does not know?” Hide’n asked sharply. “He does not fear me, precisely. He fears what I represent, that is, to him, a sobering truth. The reminder that one will always have to face change in the end, and not as an equal, but as a slave. Caswin has a fire inside of him. It is a fire that will not be quenched. He will spend his life trying to get it out, using whatever he can. Understand that to question him is to fan the flames. Though it may seem that fear is on our side, and that we may use it to turn him from whatever path he is determined to take… We would be wrong to believe in it. Fear drives him. It drives him towards change, rather than away from it. You must understand that it is for this reason that I cannot go to him.”
“So we leave him be as we always have, and then perhaps one day he’ll find something that will sustain his interest for more than a few moons, and then—”
“He already has.”
“You wish to see how far he’ll go with this flight of fancy?”
“Don’t you?” Hide’n could feel himself piercing July with his eyes again. He shook his head, almost a twitch—again he was reminded of the lu’varch. “How much do your friends mean to you?” He asked.
“They mean a lot to me.”
“In that case, do you wish to see them succeed?”
“I can’t answer that.” The pent-up frustration that July had been feeling finally manifested in tangible form when he slammed his hand so hard against the table that his palm seemed to have gone numb for a heartbeat or two before starting to smart. Recovering almost immediately, he went about picking up the bits of cracker which had leapt from the plate from the impact. “This is all- I’m so sorry. I promise this won’t become a habit. It’s my own fears after all. I’ve got no proof that this… luminescence will pose a danger to us all. Just a horrible feeling in my gut, the same feeling I get looking at a dead, rotting fish lying on a riverbank.”
“Have you even seen a river before?” Hide’n smiled, expression considerably softer than before, blue eyes no longer hard and icy.
“Just once,” said July quietly. “It was on the way to Amaranth, year before last. There was a sandstorm on the outskirts and we took a detour that led across a river. Looked more like a thin stream of liquid mud, really. And on the shore—if you could even call it a shore—there it was, the dead fish. Looked nothing like what we’ve got here in the lake, it had these strange fins that almost look like some sort of webbing, and strangest of all were the lids. The thing had lids over its eyes like you and I. Come to think of it, I’m not so sure if it was truly a fish now. Anyway, there it was, just lying there, dead with the flesh and the scales starting to melt off its bones. ‘A real beauty’, Soph called it.”
“I’m inclined to believe that she was merely making a jest, but knowing Sophelle, I would not bet on it.”
“The Book forbids making bets, gambling and the like, so you wouldn’t be able to anyway.”
“Should I put a halt to our occasional games of cards?” Hide’n winked at July, a playful sign that he was already congratulating himself on his triumph.
“No, please don’t!” July replied hastily, also rather embarrassed at his own predictability. “Besides,” he went on, recovering, “you owe me a game. Rather, you owe yourself the chance to even the score again, before I decide that you have to repay me in coin and—”
“—leave me unable to deny the crime, by appearing before the council to declare that I owe you a debt?” Hide’n laughed, head bowed and mouth hidden behind his hand. “You have less scruples than I thought you did, July Nyven’aleas.”
July grinned. “That’s how badly I want a game.”
The deck of cards was already floating lazily across the room, Hide’n with his hand resting palm up to receive it.
The smell of sweetgrass was in the air, an oddly pungent and bitter one for the name of its perpetrator. The plant grew only at high altitudes, which made Wingworth the perfect place to cultivate it, if it didn’t already happen to grow wild and proliferate, seeds carried in the constant wind that swept through the valley. Mar Karova, the keeper of the inn and the woman who’d been July’s guardian until he had come of age, was one of those who enjoyed the natural scent of sweetgrass and kept her living quarters filled with sachets packed with the blue-green blades, often leaving them hanging in her rafters long after they’d withered and turned dry enough to be used for tinder.
“I could take those down for you,” July offered, indicating the dried leaves encased in their little bags of fine netting.
“Told you a half-dozen times, child. I like having them up there,” croaked the wizened old lady. Her skin was spotted with age, tan, sun-browned despite rarely seeing the sun. Her hair hung to her waist, resting against the crooked curve of her back in seven thin braids. It was coarse and white, with the occasional grey strand which did nothing for her appearance but give the impression that she wasn’t quite an antique. Yet. A painting on the wall just above the head of her mattress portrayed herself and her husband as they had been in their youth—both with tan skin and light hair which seemed to glow against the shadowy backdrop. Only a tint of sunshine added by the artist served to remind that the shade of their hair was the very palest of yellow characteristic to their race, and not the white that came from time-bleached age. The Mar Karova in the portrait was plump and smiling, her cheeks were rosy and seemed heavy with happiness. July would not have believed that the person in the portrait could have shrivelled into the twig-thin one before him now, if Mar Karova herself had not subjected him to her vehement insistence.
July would state his disbelief, and Mar would insist that the person in the portrait was a highly accurate representation of her younger self. Without either of them acknowledging it, the exchange had become a ritual of sorts, perhaps even a charm for good luck, since July couldn’t remember having ever received a word of that from the old lady before. It had happened each year without fail since July had started participating in the Amaranth tournaments. He would turn up at the inn, and Mar Karova would help him pack his bags. He supposed that he ought to have stopped coming a long time ago, but each year, he would lay his equipment out on the floor of his room and realize that it was all he cared about—he hadn’t a clue what else he might need to have with him, aside from the items that were clearly essential to Issodel.
“These.” Mar Karova, tossed a roll of bandages at July, who was kneeling on a large map and poring over a corner of it with interest, an array of writing materials and inks of every colour beside him. The bandages hit him in the back of the head and bounced off, finally settling in a corner of the room.
“Thanks,” said July without looking up.
“You’ll be needing them,” Mar warned him. “They’re bandages,” she added, hoping it would get his attention.
July looked around for the roll. “Soph brought me some last night, but I suppose it won’t kill to bring along some more of this stuff. What if I lose a hand, I asked her. No amount of bandages is going to heal that.”
“Watch the company you keep, child. That dark sense of humour will be the death of you.” But Mar was grinning as she said it; mouth curved into her own version of a grin, full of sparsely arranged teeth in a pair of gums, a grin with more holes than teeth.
There was a knock at the door. “To speak of the ko-atwor,” July greeted Sophelle with a cheerful wave. She made a noise of disgust at the mess on the floor.
“He does this to you every year?” She asked, turning to Mar with a conspiratorial wink. “It’s bad enough that it spills over into my room as well, but to take it halfway across the district?”
Mar laughed toothlessly. “He’s welcome here other times of the year, but it’s only around this time that he shows up, when he’s wanted the least. I want nothing more than to close my door in his face!”
“Sometimes I want to do that too, but he’s right next door! He gets so frantic about things around this time, he’d probably claw a hole right through the wall to get in.”
“Company is important!” July piped up from the floor, indignantly brandishing a blotter at her.
“Just admit that you need it because you’re nervous,” teased Sophelle. She looked around for something soft to fling at him. There was a spare tunic draped over a chair and she attacked July half-heartedly with her weapon of choice. He deflected the tunic, but could not escape Sophelle’s momentum as she fell upon him. Laughing, he dropped the quill in his hand and almost managed to roll away, but she had his legs pinned. July tried to twist out from under her weight, but she was sitting on his knees.
“My map!” July yelped as an inkwell was sent flying, leaving a trail of large splotches in its wake.
“Children,” Mar Karova murmured to herself, watching them with kind eyes. She raised her voice. “Any chance that you two can be distracted with stories? What about some tales from the tourneys of my time?”
There was silence for a bit, but the sound of ink dripping from July’s soaked sleeve and hitting the surface of the large map did not escape anyone’s notice. “Ohh,” he said regretfully, and got to mopping up the spilled ink with the tunic.
“I’m so sorry!” Sophelle turned to Mar, a look of dismay on her face. “It isn’t just him. This time of the year has me set on edge as well. We both go a little crazy with nerves. I’m so sorry about the floor!”
Mar Karova dismissed her despairing with an unconcerned wave. July was done mopping up the ink and had started to peel the map off the floor, revealing the ghosts of the spillage, amongst numerous other marks which appeared to have been left by paint of every tint and shade.
“Was my husband’s workspace,” she said with a wistful expression. “Right here was where he sat, hunched upon a three-legged stool—still got it around, hiding behind the counter. Can’t say the same about the man who rested his bum on it. That bit of floor right there was where he did his work most days, though when the weather was fair, he’d take the stool and his easel and his box of paints up to that hill where Arc Moris lives. He really wanted some little ones towards the end. Children. Little pairs of helping hands, and hands he could teach to hold brushes and scrapers and things, he’d say.” The pouches beneath Mar’s eyes seemed to grow heavy with unshed tears. She pointed to the portrait of them on the wall. “He painted that. Left all that space around us to be filled in when…”
After Mar trailed off, there was an acute silence. July almost felt sorry for the hunched old innkeeper. Not wanting his respect for her strength to be marred by pity, he held his tongue and simply moved over to where she was sitting on the bed and folded his fingers over her wizened, clever ones. Sophelle watched on, feeling a little helpless, heart with the both of them.