Jem’s Revenge

Five hundred years after the Fall of the Mother’s Temple.

A boy no more than fifteen years, stood alone in the street. Dusk had already fallen. A glow came from the tavern on the corner, an old building, built of wood over a stone foundation. The squeal of a flute swept outward from its doorway along with the scent of fresh bread, and an old, dry draught.

The carpenter across the way was at her window, lighting a candle, and the village smith sat on his porch smoking a pipe. A girl was chopping wood in the front yard of the house next door. Although the fire that normally burned in the worn clamp and chimney was missing this night, a strong, smoky scent hovered in the air.

A broken axle and a broken leg had left the girl without timber and the last load of charcoal had burned out days past. Another fire burned in its absence.

Still, the smith would get his coal this week. The scribe, he would not need it.

The boy gazed into the inferno before him. A pool of light spread outward, the shadows of a freshly painted fence dancing in tune with flames. Darkness fought with light in a battle of violence and endless lust. Reds, oranges, blues, and even hints of green fought for dominance. The shadows dodged and twisted, fighting for scraps and hollows. Soot rained and the shadows claimed their prizes, patient yet eager. The shadows knew they would win eventually, so had no need for worry. In time, the boy would make both his ally.

He could feel the warmth. The flames crept higher. He did not back away. Like the shadows, he had no fear. He kept his hands at his sides, closed in fists, as was his custom. A smile touched his lips. There was beauty before him; a swirling mass of chaotic elegance. He knew in his soul, that this was right. And the Well approved. It made its claim.

The flute, and now the thundering of a drum, met with the crackling of the flames to create a ceremonial dirge that hummed in his ears. He watched. He listened. He closed his eyes to feel the warmth and watch the light dance upon his lids. The pleasure was almost overwhelming.

The flames continued higher, but not outward. They could not. The house on the right was too far. The shop on the left a short distance, but still, the fire did not spread. It was balanced perfectly within the square; half a foot into the alley to the left, three feet on the right. The Well was precise. The Well was powerful. The flames went ever upward.

The carpenter at her window did not see the light reflected in the panes of glass. The revelers in the tavern drank and listened to their tune. They could not hear the crackle. For them, the song was incomplete. The smith sat upon his porch. The only smoke he could see or taste was that within his pipe. And the girl? The girl did not feel the warmth. She simply continued chopping. That was unfair. He opened his eyes and looked to her. She met his gaze.

Sudden alarm, her pupils darting to the flames, then back to him. One last swing. The axe bedded in a log, she climbed over the fence. He watched her as she came, the light weaving across her form, the shadows shrinking away to find their last bastions of defiance. She met him on the cobbled walk and turned to face the fire. She said nothing for a moment. Together they enjoyed the scene.

“You’re leaving then?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. His voice was calm.

A small tear followed the curve of her cheek. A soft glint of water in her eye. “Where will you go?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“What about him?”

The boy said nothing. He looked into his flames.

A low sob. More tears. A quick flash of color in the window. Then another. And another.

“The inks,” he said.

She nodded. She held his hand.

“There’s no heat,” she said.

“There is. You just can’t feel it.”

“Does he?” she asked.

Again, the boy said nothing.

She let go of his hand. Another sob followed by a low whine. Another instrument added to the dirge.

He put his arm across her shoulder and held her close. She did not resist, but placed her face on his chest. Tears dripped onto the cloth of his shirt. He continued to watch the fire. The smith went inside. The carpenter extinguished her candles.

After a time, they moved back to the fence. They sat with backs against the large sign at the head of the walk; a painting of an ink pot and a quill with the word “Scribe” written in his father’s hand.

As the flames died, so did the music from the tavern. A little after midnight she fell asleep. He left her where she was. He did not kiss her when he left.

In the morning she will wake to find him gone. The smith will be the first to notice the charred remains of the shop. The roof will have collapsed hours ago. He will walk to the fence and find the girl leaning against the sign, tears cutting trails through the soot that coats her face. The smith will ask what happened. She will say nothing. He will leave her where she sits and walk among the still warm embers. Soon, the street’s denizens will gather in the front yard.

The smith will find no sign of the boy, but the remains of the boy’s father laid upon scraps of burnt cloth, all that is left of a woolen blanket and a cedar bed frame. The innkeep and his brother the sexton will spend the day digging. The carpenter will build the casket.

The smith will go back to the girl. He will ask her where the boy has gone. She will not answer. The smith will understand, he has had his heart broken too. For a time, the girl will sit alone. The smith will return. He will bring shovels and a wheelbarrow. The smith and the girl will gather the charcoal. There is no sense in letting it go to waste. Her father will watch from their porch, nursing his broken leg, a smile on his lips despite the pain.

Later, the townspeople will gather behind the little chapel. The musician and his apprentice will agree to play in return for an extra night of lodging at the inn. The song will be a sad mockery of the chorus of the night before. The drums will echo in the girl’s mind. One Trask is dead. The other is gone. She will feel hollow inside.

The priest will give a sermon. The sexton will shovel dirt onto the casket. The smith will support her father’s weight so that he can place a hand upon her shoulder. He will hold her tight. Not as tight as the boy. She will cry, but no one else will. The scribe and his crimes were well known.

The town’s sole official and soldier will be told the fire was an accident; a stray ember from the clamp next door. An accident, unforeseen. No one will be able to explain why they did not see the flames. The priest will claim it is an act of the gods. The sexton will agree.

That night, the girl will return to chopping wood. Though she will have plenty of charcoal, there will still be a broken axle to fix, and the carpenter will require cuts of precise lengths. She will spend the night working herself to exhaustion, with tears upon her cheeks. No one will bother her. She will be left alone with her pain. The boy will suffer alone as well.

***

A day south of the village, the boy, Jem, spent his first night alone beneath a tree. He heard the soft rippling of the river, a slight echo of his tears as he mourned his loss. He hated himself for that. Not for what he had done, but for the emotions that he now felt. He should not miss his father, but he did. He felt regret stronger than he had ever felt in his life. He missed the smile, the joy, the justice of the night before. Where had it gone? Why should the feeling stop?

The death was well deserved. His father had done many evil things, had been both ruthless and ambitious. But Jem’s soul twisted. His heart slowed in his chest. He cried. For two days, he had not slept, and still he couldn’t. The pain was too great. Did she lie to me? he wondered. Was it all a trick?

She would not do that, he said. She would not do that. He repeated it. Again. Again. He cried some more. The fire burned next to him in its pit. He gazed into it. He knew she did not lie. She wouldn’t. Why would she? She hadn’t. He could not shake the doubt. The fire ate away at the twigs within its reach. There was beauty in the flames. The guilt lay in the ashes. The pain lay underneath.

He did not wash. He was still covered in his crime. The ashes coated his arms, his legs. He could feel them upon his face. His tears dropped onto the dirt beneath him. They dried on his cheeks. The salt wore at his skin. He knew he couldn’t trust her and that was what hurt the most. He should have been able, but he could not. When he had found her, she had refused to meet his eyes. The pain had been in those eyes. The truth had been there too. But her eyes were not before him now. Jem had only his memories to trust. But he could not trust himself. Not after what he’d done. Not for what he was.

The townspeople had been so certain. He could trust their judgment, could he not? They had known his father.

But had they known his father? Indaht Trask had worked at the garrison most of his life. Until recently, he had not lived among the townspeople, only visited from time to time. And the people hated the soldiers. Would they have lied? Did their hatred mislead them? Soldiers were said to do such things. Aging Miss Hatch had said as much. They must have lied. They had wanted Jem to kill him. It was the old hatred in their hearts. They had killed his father.

But Jem knew that was not true. He had killed his father. And he had known his father’s crimes as well as the townspeople.

It was pain that did such things. It was pain that hurt him now. That poisoned his thoughts. That killed his feelings. He could not trust the only person he truly loved. And that’s what hurt the most. His father had denied it. He’d said that he had not hurt her, but how could he trust his father when Jem had loved her so? Why would he lie? Why would she lie? Could his father really hurt him?

A knot of hunger. A memory of the lash. The death of his friends. Yes. Yes, his father could. And had.

Jem closed his eyes, searched within himself. He held onto the memory of when he’d looked into her face. He saw her eyes before him. He saw the pain there. He saw the shame, and deep within, the anger. Jem trusted that image and felt the justice in his soul. He opened his eyes and looked into the fire. Again, he saw the beauty. Again, he saw the triumph and the retribution in the flames. But it had been his father.

The guilt was still there, too.

***

Jem woke late into the next day, his throat raw from the cries and screams of the night before. His chest was numb, his heart broken. The pain had not ended in his sleep. The dreams that plagued him spoke to his worst fears. He found her lying with his father. She moaned out her delight. He cleared his throat behind her and then she cried out rape. It had been the worst betrayal. His father went up in ashes beneath her. She smiled and she whispered, “I love you, Jem. Do this for me.”

But that was not the way it had been. She hadn’t asked Jem to kill his father; he had found her the morning after the rape. It had taken him the entire day to get the truth from her, to hear what had happened. She hadn’t wanted him to know of his father’s betrayal. She had been protecting him. From the truth or from a lie? Furious, Jem changed his thoughts.

He ate a little then walked out to the river where he washed the salt and ashes from his face then went back to the fire. It had burned out in the night. Jem ran his hands through the soot and rubbed it into the skin of his fingers and his palms, a reminder of his crime. A symbol of his veracity. He grabbed his pack, wrapped the blanket inside, and returned to the road.

He looked north. Jem knew he couldn’t go back. He loved her. But he didn’t trust her. Worse, he could not trust himself. So, he would not go back. He would not put her through that.

It was a long day of travel and he did not pass anyone on the road. He spent the day trying to avoid his thoughts. A task near impossible, but a task that must be done. Desperation bred creativity and Jem discovered interests he’d never had before. He stared at his hands as he walked, studying the lines within his flesh, feeling the grooves and rubbing the soot between his palms. He scratched his fingernails against each other, peeling away strips at a time. Once they were whittled to his fingers, he studied the lines again. He named his fingers, but not his thumbs. Never his thumbs. He laughed at that.

The laugh was painful, it tore his throat. He looked back at his hands. The soot engulfed them. His thoughts poked through. He saw her face. He saw his father. He cried. He screamed his rage. He named his thumbs.

Jem pulled his knife from his pack and tied the sheath around his waist. He found a pinecone. As he walked, he cut away the scales and let them drop to the ground. He walked slowly. After all, he had no destination.

When his hands grew tired, he sheathed the knife.

He looked at the river then studied the road. The road followed the river. Or did the river follow the road? He looked at the road. Studied its surface. An old stone path, built more than a century before. Each sett shaped, cut, and lain perfectly. A maze of rock and mortar, the road was perfect. Surely the river must follow such beauty.

He drowned his thoughts with such distractions. But he learned that pain cannot be drowned. That regret and anger cannot die. The diversions could protect him for a time, but always the feelings would return, each time stronger.

His father had been an evil man, but never a rapist. A brute, a sadist, a murderer; a coward, and a fool, but never a rapist.

When darkness fell, Jem set up camp alongside the road. He didn’t bother to hide as he had the night before. He did not care.

That night was as bad as the first.

In the morning he stared blankly ahead. The pain had faded. Somewhat. The uncertainty had not. The world did not feel real. It was empty. Just like him. He looked at his palms. The soot was wearing away. He stood. Again, Jem rubbed his hands in the ashes. He sat against a tree and stared into the dregs of the fire. He would have to live with fires the rest of his life. He should have been smarter. There would always be fires. They would always remind him. In a way, he would carry his crime the rest of his life. One fire at a time.

After a while, he stood, packed his blanket, but did not eat. He returned to the road. Today Jem did not look back. He simply walked south.

For hours he walked, staying to the center of the road, making sure not to stray. He counted the stones. He counted his steps. Eventually, his mind simply counted. He drank from the river then continued onward. After a time, his mind stopped. He didn’t think. He just kept walking.

Eventually, the river turned away, and Jem had his answer. The river must have followed the road, but like all admirers of beauty, it had grown bored and left to find another. Jem was not proud of his answer, on his face a grin of self-commiseration. Jealousy seared.

Abruptly the road stopped. He had come to an intersection. He let his eyes trace the road to the horizon on either side.

“Hello there!” a man’s voice called, high pitched and shrill. Jem looked up. An old man with dark skin, holding a staff and wearing a funny blue hat, sat on a large boulder at the head of the intersection. “Where are you headed?” the old man asked.

Jem stared but did not answer.

“Well, that’s all right. I already know where you’re going,” the man said, curling a finger through his long gray beard.

“You do?” Jem asked.

“Of course,” the old man said. “You’re going east.”

“Why am I going east?” Jem asked.

“Because, that’s the way it’s done.”

“Oh,” said Jem. He turned west and started walking. The river had gone west, and so would he.

“No! No! That’s the wrong way. That’s west. You want to go east.”

“I don’t care.”

“Well you should care!” shouted the old man.

Jem stopped and looked at him. “Why?”

“Because, you’re supposed to go east. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, and that’s the way it’s always been! And where is your guide? You need a guide!”

Jem walked back to the intersection, centered himself within the square, and faced the boulder. He looked into the old man’s eyes. The man stood proudly upon his rock, looking down at Jem.

“Who are you?” Jem asked.

“I’m me! Who are you?”

Jem turned and started west.

“Fine!” the old man shouted. “My name is Lu. Now where is your guide?”

Jem faced the old man. “I don’t have a guide,” he said.

“Why don’t you have a guide? You have to have a guide.” Leaning against his staff, the old man scratched his chin, vibrating the long strands of hair that draped from his beard and scalp. With a satisfied grin, he straightened his hat. “I know! I’ll be your guide!”

“No thanks,” Jem said, certain the old man was insane.

“What do you mean no? Don’t you know who I am?”

“Who are you?”

“I told you, I am Lu!”

“I don’t want a guide,” Jem sighed. “Leave me be.” Once again, he turned and set off west.

The old man screamed.

“Get back here!” he shouted, his voice laced with rage. “I demand that you listen to me!”

Jem ignored him, continuing down the road.

“I know what you did!” The voice had become low and menacing, the shrillness gone. The insanity vanished. Only calm clarity remained.

Jem stopped. He placed a hand on the knife at his waist, the other closing into a fist. He returned to the intersection, and again, looked into the old man’s eyes.

“What did I do?” Jem asked.

The old man laughed. “Ah! Even you do not know. So poetic. Do they fester?”

“What did I do?”

“Yes, they must fester,” the old man drawled, nodding vigorously. “Did you even hear my words? Or do the lies erase them?” Lu tapped his skull. “Is there any truth in there?”

A third time. “What did I do?” Fear and anger rose, the Wellstone slid, uncapping. Slowly. Slowly.

“She lied to you. But you already know that, don’t you? You can feel it. I see it in your eyes. I feel it in the air. Hear it in your breathing. You know you’ve been abandoned and betrayed. And you try to hide it from yourself.”

“I hide nothing!” screamed Jem. “He forced himself on her.”

“Did he? Or did she force herself on him?”

“She did not lie,” Jem said aloud, but even he could hear the doubt in his voice. The Wellstone grated.

“Ah! A game! Who lied to whom?” The man smiled. “Do you know? No, no, don’t tell me! I’ll go first: Him to her, and her to you, and her to him, and you to you!” A mad grin. “No, no, no.” The end of the old man’s staff ticked side to side in tune: “You to him, and him to you, and her to him, and you to you?” The smile spread wider. “No, I’ve got it! Her to him, and him to you, and her to you, and you to you! Can you guess which is the truth?”

“They are all lies,” asserted Jem.

“All lies? So close, but no. One more guess. I know the truth, but the question is: do you?”

“What do you know?” Jem asked softly, the doubt and fear gnawing at his nerves. The old man laughed. Anger built in the back of Jem’s skull, causing his neck to burn. She didn’t lie. One hand hung at Jem’s side in a fist, the other on the dagger hilt. He felt the warm, leather wrapped hilt press back against his finger bones. The Well hesitated. Uncertain, unclear. The stone was free.

“No, no,” Lu said. “I cannot give you the answer, you must guess first. But if you’re in the mood for questions, tell me, was the Whore still there when you left? No, I imagine not. She’s probably left to find another cock.”

“What do you know?” Jem repeated, the insanity creeping now into his own voice. She is not a whore. She did not lie. He pulled the knife out of the sheath, a silent threat.

“Hah! Another cheater joins the game! That knife cannot take the board. You must guess or else I win.”

“Tell me what you know!” yelled Jem. His vision went red. His palms dripped with sweat. She did not lie, Jem lied. “Which is the truth?”

The old man turned his head slightly to one side. Again, he laughed, then mockingly, “Ha! It matters not.” A dismissive wave. “They’re all the same.”

Jem threw the knife. The Well guided. It struck Lu in the chest. Blood trickled from the wound. Lu looked down at the knife then back at Jem, disbelief in his eyes. He leaned against his staff and his funny hat fell off his brow. Lu’s face began to pale.

Jem watched, stunned. He had thrown the knife, the same knife buried deep within Lu’s heart. The old man opened his mouth to speak, but blood poured forth instead of words. Lu’s eyes rolled back into his skull and his knees buckled as he fell backward, disappearing behind the boulder. The sudden force threw the staff from its perch. It landed on the road.

Jem ran to help, but Lu was lying flat on his back, blood shrouding his face and chest. Jem stared at the corpse, then at his knife, then at Lu’s face. He didn’t understand. He had been so angry. So frightened. But the old man had clearly been insane. There could not have been any truth to his words. So why had Jem been so furious? And why had he thrown the knife? Was he like his father? Quick to anger, quick to judge?

Jem looked at the soot on his hands, a stab of guilt sweeping through him. He trembled and dropped to his knees. Holding his head in his hands, panic filled his heart. He couldn’t stay here. What would happen if someone found him? They would blame him. It was his knife. It was his fault. He had killed this man. He looked again at Lu’s face and then at the soot on his hands. He knew what he must do. He dipped his hands in the blood. A strange feeling swept through him. It felt out of place. The feeling was pleasure. No, not pleasure; ecstasy.

He cringed at his own callousness as he screamed his disappointment. He took his hands from the blood, but the feeling remained. Despite the guilt, he could feel the energy and the power of it all, the sense of wonder and joy at such a horrible act. How could he enjoy this? The Well remained oddly silent. It made no claim.

Jem wiped his brow with a sleeve as he gazed into Lu’s lifeless eyes. He stared into the pupils and noted the color, a dark brown. He studied the wrinkles of the man’s face and marked the freckles and shadows of his form. He would remember this man, this man he had killed in a fit of anger and fear, guilt and jealousy. He considered burying the body, but feared to touch the blood a second time.

Finally, he stood and returned to the crossroads. He saw the staff lying in the road. It was a simple staff, cut from birch. No special markings, no elaborate patterns, only the carving of a bird at one end. The staff pointed east. Grudgingly, Jem picked it up, turned west, and ran.

***

Shortly after, Lu stood from the grass, cackling in delight. He pulled the knife from his chest and studied it. Holding it up to the light, Lu sniffed it. He licked the blade to sample his own blood and instantly regretted it. To get the taste from his mouth, Lu spat, but his effort gained him little. He knew what blood tasted like. Blood was foaming from my lips only a moment ago, why would I need to taste it? he wondered. Because! This was heart blood, the other was mouth blood. Not the same thing, he decided. To prove it, he licked the iron blade a second time. See! More metally!

With a sleeve, Lu wiped the blood from his face, spattering the red fluid against the boulder. He climbed back onto the rock, giggling as he did so. He climbed back down the other side, and stepped onto the road. Why go around when you can go over, he always said. Wait! Why go over when I can go around! He turned, climbed back over the boulder, and went around. He chuckled at his own creativity then sighed. Some games grew tiresome when overplayed. Lu found his hat at the base of the stone, put it on his head, and looked to the west. The boy was long out of sight. Perhaps he should not have fed the boy’s insecurities, but he so enjoyed testing conviction.

“Stubborn little butcher,” he said. “The bastard still went west.”

Lu adjusted his hat.

“Where’s my staff?”

A flash of light and a cold wind announced a new arrival, even before she spoke.

“Playing in my garden?” Fate asked.

Lu froze, wondering at first, if the voice was real or simply imagined. Upon deciding it was real, and that the cold-hearted bitch wherefrom all evil things did originally originate did in fact stand behind him, wondered if he simply closed his eyes and pretended not to have heard, if she would simply go away.

She did not. Fate never went away ‘simply’.

“Your garden?” Lu asked. He turned to face the beast in full form. She looked the same as ever. A cane not so nice as his missing staff. Spectacles not so nice as Lu’s pointed blue hat. “Is your garden not in Atherahn, these days?”

“Oh, Dydal, certainly not,” Fate said. “Have you not learned by now, that the whole world is my garden?”

“I am not Not Lu.”

Fate chuckled, tapping her cane gently against Lu’s rock. “No,” she said. “Of course not.” She dipped her head in the direction of Lu’s bloodstains. “You let him touch your blood. In need of another blooder, Dydal?”

“Me? I do not prop up the Butcher’s Cult, nor let them terrorize innocents in the name of a long-forgotten shrew. And, I am not Not Lu.”

Fate’s grip tightened upon her cane. “Do not besmirch my sister.”

“Sister?” Lu cocked his head to one side. “You do not have a sister. Even when Death lived, you did not have a sister.” Did she have a sister? He couldn’t remember.

Fate glared, but her words were soft. “So arrogant, yet so ignorant. But, what should I expect? You may be the god of Thought, Dydal, but Thought is not wisdom. Once again, you are meddling in my affairs.”

“Am I?” Lu thought back to the events of the last few days. He recalled doing a very many things, but he wasn’t entirely sure which of those things had been him. Did I kill my father? Me? Lu wondered. Yes, yes me. But no, that didn’t seem right. Maybe he had killed Fate’s sister? Yes, that one sounded better. But that had not been recently. “I don’t seem to recall having done anything to meddle in your affairs.” Other than killing her sister, who… happened not to be her sister… “And, I am not Not Lu.”

“Do not try to exempt yourself from guilt by playing games. You just brought the Whore’s whelp out into the world.”

“Have I?” Lu glanced west, down the path the boy had taken. He did remember that. He had felt the Whore’s scent upon the boy, and had stopped to see the oddity. Lu patted at his breast. There was a button in his pocket. He sensed that he should touch it, then urged himself not to. This was not the time for a clear head. Not while Fate was so very close. Had to keep her guessing. Yes… Yes, that sounded right.

What had they been talking about? Lu glanced around them and saw the bloodstains in the grass. Oh, yes, she believed that he had murdered someone. Had he? Well, did he want people to think that he’d murdered someone?

“I didn’t do anything,” Lu protested. What had he been doing? Oh, yes. The Assassin. “I was simply passing by. Following the course of an old friend.”

“Oh,” Fate drawled, “and which friend is that?”

Lu swallowed. “Oh. Uhm…” He had not thought she would think to ask. What could he tell her? ‘Oh, I just hired the Assassin to foil your plans, but don’t do anything about it because I truly was just passing by a few moments ago, and genuinely had no idea that a young godling was holed up in Vale.’

Me? Lu thought. Yes. Yes, me.

He had let the Assassin go… but, better to let Fate think this boy was his true purpose here.

Lu forced a nervous chuckle. “An old friend,” Lu repeated.

Fate sighed. “Return the boy to Vale. Now.”

“I didn’t take him from it.”

“Return him.”

“But I cannot. That would be meddling. In your garden.” Hadn’t she insisted that he not do that? Why did others have to be so confusing? “Why would I meddle where I have not already?” Lu frowned. “Why don’t you return him?”

Fate said nothing.

Lu could feel the smile spreading on his lips. “Clarissa,” he said, making special note to use her given name. “Why don’t you return him? Made some kind of promise, have we? Something you cannot break?” Again, Lu patted his breast. He could feel the little, four-holed disk in his pocket. He had picked it special just for this occasion, but… no. Not yet. Not yet. It wasn’t time for understanding yet. He pulled his hand away and looked at it. Why was his hand so sticky?

Fate released a fuming groan. “You know the promise I have made,” she said slowly. “Do not pretend otherwise. Return the boy before I must take action.”

Lu did not know, but that did not keep his smile from widening. What have I stumbled upon? Something that made his fingers sticky, clearly. “Say,” he said, “you’re looking rather haggard of late… Been breaking a lot of promises lately? Afraid, perhaps, that if you defy your aspect one more time, that it might finally kill you?”

Fate glared, but did not answer. Perhaps he’d been wrong all along. Maybe he did want her focused on other matters. On anything but this boy; perhaps even the Assassin… What could he do with a soul completely free from Fate’s tether? And truly, wasn’t he always trying to keep her focused on any other matter aside from that for which she was currently focused on?

Lu laughed. Yes, that sounded correct.

“Fine, Clarissa. Fine. I will not interfere, but you must believe me. I have done naught, but to stop and greet a curiosity.” I think…

“You expect me to believe that?”

He didn’t. “It is the truth.” It wasn’t. “Go ask the boy. I told him to go east!” That little shit had stole his staff…

“East?”

“Yes, East.”

“Why East?”

Yes, why East? he wondered. He’d wanted something, hadn’t he? Oh, that was right. The book. “Because I had intentions that he should bring me a book, yet there he goes, off to the west.” Was I supposed to tell her that? Lu wondered. Yes, he was. Just… he wasn’t supposed to tell her about the Assassin. Or about the book.

“A book?” Fate asked.

“Yes, yes, a book. Teachings of a Whore. I wanted the boy to retrieve it, except I wasn’t supposed to…” Oh.

“Supposed to what?”

“Read it.”

Fate glared at him. He smiled back at her.

“What could you possibly want from Teachings of a Whore?”

“Does that matter?” he wondered aloud. The question was as much for him as it was for her.

“That depends, do you want to convince me of your innocence, or would you prefer that I have you deposed as Cleric?”

“Deposed as Cleric? With what?” He very much wanted to know. “Taehrn Andren and his like? With the Magistrate Godahn?” Those two were after him… but he’d sent someone to deal with that, too. Hopefully.

“Why do you want the book?”

Lu feigned an aggrieved sigh. “My own copy was damaged.”

“And you’re missing your own work? Your ego can’t just let such drivel die?”

My work?” Had he written Teachings of a Whore?

Me? Lu wondered. Yes, he decided. Yes, me. No. wait, not him. He was not Not Lu.

“Yes,” Fate said. “Your work.”

“But it’s not my work. I am not Not Lu.”

“Of course, of course.” Fate sighed and stepped closer. “You are not Dydal, as you so often claim.” Her voice was soothing and agreeable, so soft, it almost made him want to like her. And then her words got shrill and angry, “What is so important about this book?”

“It’s not important.”

“You just said it was.”

“Did I?”

“You said you wanted it.”

“Did I? I believe I said I attempted to send the boy to retrieve it. Those are not the same thing.”

“Why would you send him?”

“Why not? A young man must have something to do…”

“You’re playing games with me.”

“Me? Never? You must be thinking of someone else. Not Lu, perhaps?”

Fate stepped forward as if to grab Lu’s robes. He jumped back, preventing her from touching the blood which stained his chest. Wouldn’t want her seeing too much…

“Keeping me at a distance?” Fate asked. She stopped and smiled, yet she did not lower her hand.

“I still have some sanity.” At least, he was pretty sure.

Fate chuckled. “I’m beginning to think it’s time I dragged you into my cottage, Dydal. What do you say?”

He glanced up and down her withered form. “Young men don’t need something to do that badly. And, I am not Not Lu.”

“As if you’re a young man, Dydal. And you know what I meant.”

“Of course. A bargain.” Fate was always making bargains. She wasn’t very good at it though. Not very good at it at all. Not like Lu. Or Not Lu, for that matter. Who he happened not to be. “And, I am not Not Lu!”

Fate glared at him, dully. “Do you think that you are fooling me, Dydal?”

“Yes,” he said proudly. And he was. “You wish me to be fated, but the trouble is you’ve tried before, and it hasn’t worked.” Usually. “And, I am not Not Lu.”

She gave him an exhausted look. “Just tell me what I want to know.”

Lu shrugged, then proceeded to tell her that which he wasn’t supposed to be telling her, “A woman defiled the book, and when she did so, the book sent out a ripple.”

“A ripple?”

“Yes, a ripple.”

“What happened?”

Lu frowned at her. “I just said…” Hadn’t he just said? Yes, he had. “A woman defiled the book.”

“And it sent out a ripple?”

“Yes,” Lu agreed. “A trickling of power, whose source could only be the Mother.”

Fate raised an eyebrow. “Ahh… so you think to trace it to her?”

Lu frowned. Was that why he wanted the book? Good enough. “Well, what else could I do?”

“I told you that you would not see the Mother again. Not until she completes her task.”

“Have you ever known me to accept your terms?”

Fate nodded to the west, to the boy whose silhouette had faded into the distance. “Is that an admission of your guilt? That you have interfered?”

Probably, he thought. “No,” he said. “Our goals are aligned.” And for the moment, they were. “I have no reason to interfere with this boy. Indeed, I have no reason to break your deal with the Whore at all. I simply need her presence, a presence which you have denied me.”

“And what? You think in coming here, in meddling in my affairs, that you can force me to break this deal and give you what you desire?”

“Of course not. I know better than that,” he lied. “My presence here was purely coincidental.”

“You lie.”

“Do I? I don’t think so.” He really didn’t think so. “I think you did this.”

“What are you saying?”

Lu smiled. “You don’t know?” He had made his decision. He knew what he had to do.

“Know what?”

“Are you admitting, Clarissa, that I have a better ear to what your people are up to than you yourself?”

Fate frowned at him. “What happened?”

Lu exhaled a somber breath, and took the chance he knew he had to take. A boy untethered by Fate… With a soft brush against the pocket which held the button, he spoke.

“I told you, I came here to see a friend. I was, in fact, letting free the Assassin.”

“The Assassin? Why?”

“To steal the book out from under Planner’s nose.”

“And that brought you here?”

“It brought me near here. Then I felt an aura I’d not felt in some time. An aura belonging to… one of yours. It brought me here.”

Fate turned her gaze to the north, to the city of Vale and its scent of ash and sorrow. She was silent for several moments, and then she sighed and closed her eyes. “Taehrn and Godahn… I told them not to interfere.”

“Yes,” Lu agreed. Interfering was never good. Especially not when they did it. “Yes, strange that they have done so…” Lu’s voice was sweet and unthreatening. Surely, with his voice so sweet, she would believe anything he said. “It’s almost as though they are not as loyal as you thought. After all… our friend in Liv, who does he really serve?” It was a risk, perhaps premature, but this was an opportunity he could not miss.

“You think they have betrayed me?”

“I think that you have not interfered, and I have not interfered, yet clearly someone has. But who?” Ohhh, Just is going to be mad. No, Just was already mad. Was he?

“Who did this?”

Lu shrugged. “I can only think of one player in this game outside both your control and mine. And look at who they’ve targeted? Another of the Mother’s children.”

“Just…”

“He is acting so very odd of late, is he not?” Lu suppressed a chuckle.

Fate’s eyes narrowed. “In what way?”

“It is almost like his madness is clearing… Like someone, or something, is giving his mind new focus.”

“You’ve sensed it also.”

“Indeed…” Lu agreed, shaking his head fervently. “The figure in his thoughts. The heckler in Just’s shadow.”

“Even if you were right… my people would not side with him.”

“Wouldn’t they?”

“No.”

“Why?” Lu asked.

“Because they want what only I can give them.”

“They want to depose me as High Cleric. And Indaht Trask would have been quite the prize; perhaps their only chance to unseat me, and you did promise them that you would unseat me, didn’t you?” Yes, she had. “Yet, here I am, still seated.” Lu glanced at his legs. Except that he was standing. Why would he say something so foolish?

“They are loyal.”

“Perhaps they’ve grown impatient.”

Godahn is loyal.”

“But can you say the same of Taehrn? Does he believe in you the way the Magistrate does? And can you really be so certain of the Magistrate himself? Just’s armies are marching off to war, and Taehrn Andren is among them. Whatever is whispering in Just’s ear, it knows exactly where to strike you. Exactly where to put pressure.”

“You’re lying.”

“Am I?” He most certainly was. “Do you know what the whispers are in Trel? That this war, brewing in the East, this war with Lock, is not a war with Lock at all. It’s a war with you. Lock may be a stepping stone, but Just has his sights on Atherahn.”

“He’s deluded.”

Lu frowned. What an unpleasant word to throw around. “Yet clearly, someone, or something, is capitalizing on his delusion.”

“Who could it possibly be?”

“The Mother perhaps?”

“The Mother is cowed.”

“One of her children, then?”

“Who?”

“Alchemist is still out there somewhere. As is Mystic, and Order, and oh so many others.” Me? Lu wondered. Yes, me. He kept that part to himself. “Perhaps even your boy, Quill… How long did you think it would take them before they realized they must move against you?”

Fate glared at him. She glanced down the road to where the boy had gone. She shook her head and sighed. “You’re trying to distract me.”

“Have I ever done anything else?”

“No… you make your thoughts erratic to confuse me, and then you throw out bait so that I focus on all but you.”

“Have I ever done anything else?” he repeated. Was that really what he was doing? Who cared, the bitch deserved anything she got.

“No. But you speak true. This is Just’s work. I can feel his touch upon it. And there is another’s touch upon him.”

Lu swallowed. “And the sooner you act, the better it will be for all of us.” Just was going to be really mad.

“You would give your blessing?”

“To act against him? No. But to protect yourself… why would I interfere in that?”

“Because, you have a habit of interfering, even when you say you aren’t.”

Lu grinned. “So, we have an understanding.”

“We do.” Fate closed her eyes and turned to the east. After several moments of cold silence, she opened her eyes and laughed. “That one again? Our masters have a sense of humor, Dydal…”

Lu sighed. “Destiny calling again? What are you seeing this time? And, I am not Not Lu.”

Fate tsked impatiently. “I am not seeing, I am sending. You might think to distract me, but my vision is clear. One of my pawns will be keeping an eye on that boy, whatever you say. I have made a bargain, and I will keep it.”

Lu shrugged. “Fine by me. I never argued otherwise.”

Fate sniffed. Clearly, she did not believe him. And of course, she had no reason to.

Now how am I going to keep her attention? Lu wondered. But already, he knew the answer.

To read more about Jem, Lu, and Fate get your copy of Death’s Merchant now! Click Here.

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