In matters of intellect, you must always be on your guard. For who can say which is worse: the blind acceptance of falsehood, or the careless dismissal of truth?
– Words of the Emperor in Qepperdan, Matthieu Sartonné, as narrated to his page, Jarun Hichame
The dust had not yet settled from the riders behind him when Matthieu knocked on the little church’s door. Strangers eyed him everywhere he looked, but without the caution they had given to ten armed men on horseback; they viewed him only as a curiosity. He knocked again.
“Húdes,” came a man’s voice from inside. More Vauish, Matthieu lamented, and he opened the door slowly, taking up the bag that held all his remaining possessions. The room was lit well by sunlight streaming through open windows, with a courtyard on the far end. Near the opposite wall sat a priest, hunched over a tableful of messy documents with a tankard at his side. He looked up from his work.
“Sédeti ej pe ned helér,” Matthieu said. The seated man squinted his eyes.
“You should work on your accent, son,” he replied in clipped Ossirish that sounded like an imitation of the Arcinan speech they evidently shared. Lake Tongue, he thought. “You are the one Lord Rodolf wrote about, then.”
“Come here,” the priest urged, and Matthieu approached cautiously. He pulled out a chair that the priest pointed to and seated himself across the table. “Yes. He sent a letter ahead saying that you would be joining me in my work.” It had always made him feel uneasy to know that others spoke of him without his knowledge, but it must always be so, especially with a hero of the League such as himself.
“What else did he say?”
“Only that you would be well-suited to accompanying me on my journeys into the countryside.” Then nothing of Ment, Matthieu thought, but too soon. “And one more thing: he said something of the Grand Inquiry of Ossir. You ran afoul of them and have been sent here for your own spiritual betterment. Is this true?”
Matthieu could feel moisture growing on the palms of his hands. The whole of whatever Lord Rodolf had said was unknowable to him at this time; he could only be as truthful as was needed, but what was needed was also an unknown. He would avoid the subject of Lord Leopold’s army for as long as possible, if it could be done at all.
“It is true enough. They suspected that I may benefit from acquainting myself more closely with correct doctrine.”
“They and others?” the priest said, pressing him.
“Yes,” he said with some hesitation.
“So it is true, then.” Leaning back in his seat, the priest’s bearded face split in a smile. “I am Father Girome. It will be good to speak Ossirish again, after all these years. Too much Arcinan can numb a man’s tongue.”
“I know that well enough,” Matthieu replied.
“And I know about Leopold Ment, so there is no more need to hide it. Did you think that your name would not have reached here by now?”
“I… I supposed it would have, Father.”
“It did. While the Arcinans could not be bothered about the Mentites, us few Ossirians in this land knew of him and waited with patience for the end of his campaign.”
“Then it is over?” Matthieu said, and his heart leapt within him. “They are all gone back to Cyrnne?” The old man shook his head, and Matthieu felt no better for it.
“No. The snows hold the king’s forces for the moment, but there is already talk of marching on Meddelburg as soon as they clear. It is not expected that the Mentites will last long after that.”
“It was not expected that they would attack when they did either, and…” Matthieu could feel breath catching in his throat at the memories of their march. It all threatened to come back to him: Heilicon, Meddelburg, Rickerspont, and Leganne, whose end could only be supposed. Horrors both seen and heard, with the sure knowledge of more to come when the king’s armies moved to exact revenge. Not revenge, Matthieu thought to correct himself. Justice.
But justice exacted from whom? Cyrnne was a last refuge of widows and children, whose deeds merited no such judgement as that which King Rickard would surely mete out. Only those Mentite lords still in the field could answer for the sect’s crimes.
“You were not one of them,” Father Girome said, interrupting his thoughts. It was not a question.
“The Inquiry seemed to think so. Even the king had to be convinced.”
“I doubt Rickard ever saw a popular cause he could not support.” It was as Lord Gerhart had said: the people thought Matthieu responsible for ending the war, and what king could execute a hero and remain a king? He turned his gaze from the priest as his mind tried to push away the thoughts of Leopold Ment. Silence fell over them for a moment, which surprised Matthieu more than anything. Most of the priests he had known at Leganne were long on words and short on thoughts with which to fill them, but already he sensed that this one may be different. At least, that was his hope, and one he would cling to until proven wrong.
Finally, Matthieu spoke.
“I know I have been promised to help you, but I doubt there is much for me to offer. I should be back in Heilicon, or more likely long dead by now. Coming here was not my choice, as sorry as I am to say it, and I fear the only thought that may fill me in this place is that I do not belong.”
“Why are you here, Matthieu?”
“I was told that I must go on an adventure; that I must count myself lucky for doing so.”
“And is this really why you came all the way across the world? To have an adventure?”
“Perhaps,” he replied with a shrug. “I suspect the Grand Inquirer of Ossir would like to have me back in Corastia, where I could be more closely observed. The king had other ideas.”
“That is one reason why he wants you here, but that is not what I ask. I asked why you are here. What is it you plan to do here in Virjatal, other than your aforementioned adventure?”
“I do not know, Father. I am not familiar at all with this country, its people or their ways. While I certainly do not intend to spend the rest of my life here, I do not know what else there is for me to do.”
“You said to the Inquirers in Ossir that you had been shipwrecked for a time on a distant island. Several months, was it not?”
“Yes… Though some say it was only a fantasy, conjured up by madness and thirst. Do you believe it?”
“I have no reason not to, for I believe there are many lands beyond the seas that Corastian eyes have yet to behold. Tell me: how did you survive there?” For a moment, Matthieu was called back again to the cabin of the Fleetfoot those many months ago, only now it was he who doubted the tale and another who believed.
“They found me unconscious on the beach one morning,” he continued. “When I awoke again, I found myself in one of their crude houses, on a bed across from that of a young woman no older than myself. As it turned out, she was a sort of historian for her people and she taught me a little of their language. I could never fully understand the people’s conversations before I departed, but I knew enough to make my time with them productive after a fashion.”
“So you have an aptitude for this sort of thing, yes? For languages?”
“I would not call it extraordinary by any means. It was as I started to gain a more than basic understanding of their tongue that I left their islands.” He waited on the question of why as if it were a blow, but it was thankfully one that never came. Instead, the priest only straightened in his seat and carried on.
“This could prove useful, Matthieu. Much of my work lately has been conducted in villages far away from the schools and many there cannot understand Arcinan, much less speak it with any skill.”
“And why not simply hire a Varakumi to translate for you?”
“This parish has always suffered from lack of funds, just as Virjatal as a whole has suffered from a lack of priests. The Governor-General would rather raise up another army of poorly trained conscripts to fight the Lamatali than help my humble endeavors, and heaven knows my flock is as destitute as any other in the land. They can barely afford their own food, yet they are expected to provide ample funds for all my work.”
“So you would have me help you in this, if only because I need not be paid?” Matthieu asked, though it was not truly a question.
“Of course. What else shall you do here?” He turned the thought over on his mind. It was true enough: knowing no one here and with neither opportunity to return home nor anyone to return to, he could choose to either allow men like Lord Rodolf to define him, or else apply himself in some other worthwhile venture. And while he cast doubts on the necessity of the priest’s evangelical ends, the means could yet be worthwhile.
“What do you suggest I do to learn? Are there any books that could teach me?”
“Unfortunately, I have few such resources or ability to procure them at the present time. There are other priests in Huji who have devised basic vocabulary and grammar texts for the language spoken there, but we have nothing of the sort in this region. Even after all these years, my familiarity with Varakumi speech is limited at best, but I do know that there are differences between that which is spoken here and the speech of Huji. You do not need to concern yourself with this, so much as how to help me in relation to the villagers with whom I work. Can you do this?”
“Yes, Father. I will try my best, though it will be difficult.”
“You are correct that it will be difficult, but I have found little in this world that is both easy and worth my time. You will take from your studies that which you put into them. Returning to your question, I would suggest you start by speaking with an acquaintance of mine by the name of Hari Vakusham. You will find him often by the river north of the city, which they call the Maday. He often sits in meditation there. Though his mind is as sharp as ever, I think he can barely walk anymore. All the easier for me to debate him, since he cannot escape.” The priest chuckled. “He is a good soul, and he will be able to teach you much about the Varakumi speech. However, do not assume that language is all he can teach you. The old religion is very much alive here, and though many of my fellows would only decry it, I find it all most fascinating.”
“A dangerous proposition to one once suspected of heresy,” Matthieu said, drawing another laugh from Father Girome.
“I trust you will be wise. Now come; let me show you around your new home.”
The priest rose and Matthieu followed. Through the door was the courtyard he had seen through the window, a pleasant space of green trees and vegetables and herbs, some of which he knew and many he did not. Several doors ringed the garden, leading to what Matthieu presumed were bedrooms. A little kitchen stood off to one side of the priest’s study, and opposite that was a gate large enough to admit a carriage.
Lastly, Father Girome brought his guest to the library. As with everything else here, it was small but sufficient. From the spines of the volumes, he could see that many of them were in Arcinan, with titles like On the Dorimin Heresy or Lives of the Saints. While he had not always been one to immerse himself in the history of the Church, he may have no other choice here but to do just that. Furthermore, he may not know just how long he would stay in this place until Lord Rodolf’s heralds or the man himself arrived at the gate to pull him off to some new campaign or another.
“What books I have here will help you,” the priest said. “I suggest the old homilies, as many of these are written in both Arcinan and Varakuma. You will find that the language has diverged somewhat from that which is spoken now, but not enough to make it incomprehensible.”
“I will do what I can, Father,” Matthieu replied.
“I can expect no more or less than that. Have you eaten this morning?” Matthieu’s stomach rumbled at the priest’s words.
“Then come,” Father Girome said, putting an arm around his shoulder. “There is a place not far from here.”
The priest led Matthieu out the horse gate and did not bother to lock it again. They left the parish behind and set off in the dusty road on which Matthieu had entered the city shortly before. His first impression of Varakuma felt much like Heilicon had once, with its vendors’ stalls crammed along winding streets with a high stone gate standing at the far end. It was not a wall in the Arcinan style of blocks topped with stark battlements, but instead resembling a high pile of great cobblestones. Wooden towers with curving roofs held watch over sprawling fields on the east and the Maday River on the west.
Some of the smells brought him back as well: market smells, people smells. It struck him how long it had been since he had really lived in a city. Cyrnne had been a moment and Ossir even less, with weeks on the march in between. Perhaps with the passage of time, even this strange place could come to feel like home. With this thought came a feeling, not unlike a longing for a past he had not yet lived, as if he was gazing back on memories yet unmade but certain.
He lost track of his steps while in thought and was surprised when Father Girome called to him.
“Here we are,” the priest said. He was stopped in front of a little doorway, where only a few tables and chairs outside marked it for a soup stall and not just another house. Girome seated himself at one and Matthieu sat across from him.
A short woman with gray-streaked hair emerged from the shaded interior of the stall and called to the priest.
Their soup arrived a moment later at the hands of a local girl, who flashed him a shy smile and then turned away quickly toward some other table. A white-eyed fish head floated in the bowl with greens and some root vegetables he did not recognize.
“Juanyai,” Father Girome said. “Very common here.” Having lived so many weeks off Corastian fare suited to the march, this was a sight he had missed since… It must have been over year, perhaps that and three months since last he had been in Leganne. He wondered if the old soup shop was still there along High Street near the university, and promptly reminded himself to think of anything but what the Mentites must have done there. Instead, his attention returned to his bowl. He took up a spoonful of boiled leaves and broth, still steaming from the pot, and slurped at it.
His lips pursed involuntarily at the first taste.
“A bit sour for my taste,” he said, “but I could grow accustomed to it.” The priest smiled.
“You may have to. Who knows how long those lords will keep you here.” Girome only waited for his soup to cool, leaning back in his chair. “We shall have to see one of them soon, thankfully not the one you know but another of similar aspect. The governor-general himself, Lord Ocsa Earant, likes to think himself my patron and so he deigns from time to time to support my endeavors. Surely, he wants something in return, though I cannot imagine that he has received much of any use to him.”
“How long until we depart?” Matthieu asked.
“The merchant ships usually reach Varakuma in the first week of Blossoming on their way to Mirron. Inexpensive passage will be much more plentiful and so too will the Virjatal Company’s patrols. There is much to do here in the meantime, however, if you are to prove as useful as you could be.”
“Nearly three months, then. That is precious little time to learn enough Varakuma to be of much assistance.”
“Neither more nor less than you had on your island. I think you will even find it easier since you have done it before, and that without the benefit of books. Not to mention my old friend Hari will be there as well.” The priest brought a spoonful of broth up to his lips but found it still too hot. He replaced it and continued speaking.
“In fact, I suggest you go to him tomorrow morning. I can show you where to meet him but unfortunately, I have other business to attend to at that hour. Does this suit you?”
“Yes, Father. Better I start right away.”
They ate more than they talked, and the sun hung straight overhead by the time the pair made it back to the mission. Girome directed Matthieu to his quarters, a cozy room off the courtyard that reminded him somewhat of his room back in Leganne. A squat wooden table stood beside his bed, and a single square window opened onto the greenery outside. It was not much like what he had once at home in Heilicon, but nothing since that night had been. He thanked the priest for all, and the man took his leave to attend to some other business.
Matthieu had nothing to unpack, and so lay on the bed for a moment until he found himself growing sleepy, whether from the heat or the ride. Perhaps there was even more weariness in him than just that, for when he awoke again and stepped outside, the sun was almost a quarter down in the western sky. It hung behind his room and just above the low roof of the courtyard, throwing shadows at the opposite wall. The tops of the trees stuck out above them, catching streams of golden light in young leaves and Matthieu supposed that if he never left this place, it might not be such a punishment as Lord Rodolf had conceived it to be.
He returned next to the library. Perhaps sixty or seventy volumes lined the walls on bookshelves. It was not so many as had been in his old home, but he wondered where else in this city so far from Corastia might have as many. The governor-general’s mansion, perhaps, he thought, and wished to see for himself when he and Father Girome went there. Leafing through several of them, he could see that most were not in Vauish after all, but in some other form of Arcinan. Perhaps Hetterene or Remaulan, as they looked to be similar enough to what he knew but many of the spellings were different than the modern Vauish of such authors as Heresten or Jesimont. They would be a puzzle for a later time.
The Vauish books were mostly homilies, from what he could tell, and what little appeared to be written in some Qenshi language was yet impenetrable to him. Matthieu removed one book from between two crusted leather-bound volumes, so slim it was almost a pamphlet, titled simply Doctrines of the Children. At the sight of its brittle cover, he took it gently in his fingers and set it on the small reading desk up against the window.
To his surprise, it was not even printed, but hand-lettered in the old Arcinan style. He carefully opened the cover and saw inside the reason why: it was over a hundred years old, written even before Maretten’s famous press in Meddelburg. The collection at the university in Leganne had held books much older than this, including many illuminated volumes on calfskin, but to find one this old here surprised him. He admitted then that he knew little of the old Qenshi crusade, except that the Global Church’s armies had been victorious in the days of his father’s youth. Opening more pages, it was clear that this was once a tool for missionaries who preceded even the first crusade, for each page was divided by a line between a column of text in Vauish and one in a language he could only assume to be Varakumi.
“I remember reading that once,” came Father Girome’s voice from the doorway, and Matthieu jumped in his seat despite himself. “Hari tells me the translation is questionable, but it was all they had in the old days.”
“Perhaps I can make use of it too, Father.”
“I hope so. But first, it is time for supper.” Now that his thoughts turned from the book to his stomach, Matthieu realized that he was hungry. More time had escaped him than he had anticipated, but it was no matter; right here was the only place he would need to be for some time.
He rose and replaced the little book gingerly, then followed Father Girome back into the front room. On the table was a plate of fried fish, each slightly larger than the size of his finger, and some steamed white grains he had not seen before. The priest fetched two cups of wine and sat himself nearest the courtyard.
“I shall give thanks,” he said, as Matthieu took the other chair and closed his eyes, hands clasped in front of him on the table. “We thank you, Almighty one, for this bounty and ask that it nourish us for the work ahead. God be praised.”
Before Matthieu could even open his eyes again, the priest had a fish in one hand and his cup in the other.
“There is much to be said for brevity,” Girome said, and chuckled at his own joke. Matthieu himself smiled, and thought back on so many meals he had had in the past weeks. So many grandiose prayers of victory and surety over bounties much grander than this one, but little of thankfulness. Or brevity, Matthieu thought.
They ate quickly, and night fell not long after. With so many early nights on the road out of Ossir, it no longer surprised him as it had once, when Heilicon, Leganne and that weeklong stretch of road between them was all he had known. The island felt ever more distant by now, and even though his eyes had caught some faces that looked almost familiar in the crowds of Varakuma, yet this place could not be the same.
As Matthieu lay awake in the last moments before sleep, it occurred to him that in so many cities and miles and days before this, this was the first one that he could call pleasant.
The sun woke him the next morning, still low enough on the horizon that only a portion of its light fell over the eastern wall of the courtyard. He rose carefully, now feeling the compounded fatigue of so much riding as if it had all come at once. Leaving his little room, he found the priest had gone but left a note on the table, written in a precise hand:
Urgent business to attend to. You should find Hari near the river. Follow the path behind Delen’s soup stall until you see a large fruit tree, then turn right and make for the riverbank. I shall see you later.
Here again, the priest wasted few words. Matthieu pocketed the scrap of paper and made for the kitchen. Half a loaf remained there, and he took it with a gulp of water before setting out for the way he had walked the previous day.
It was not fear he felt as he walked a street only familiar for one day, though something itched in the back of his mind. Back in Heilicon, and especially in the crooked streets near the university in Leganne, he had known that anything could happen. He could find his purse slashed, or come upon one of the many drunks who loitered among the shacks near the market, or even end upon another man’s blade after a perceived slight to his honor. All this he had known then and thought himself immune, but now the unease of his first year settled on him again. Familiarity had driven away so many of uncertainty’s shadows in that place, while those of Varakuma still clung to the corners of his sight and mind. Perhaps it would only take time, he reassured himself.
Matthieu passed the soup stall, where a few Corastians had gathered to break their fast. Their halberds propped up against the wall nearest them belied the apparent lightness of their talk, of which Matthieu determined he wanted no part. He quickened his steps, and breathed easier when none of them called after him. Soon enough, he reached the fruit tree, or at least one that looked big enough to bear the priest’s notice. A ragged little path went off to the right, just as Girome had said, and so Matthieu took it with only a bit of his former trepidation.
It was an increasingly precarious walk out to the river, as he picked his way through flooded fields and patches of trees, moving on in the direction of a rushing sound which was to his ears as a steady wind in the forest. Finally, he brushed aside a bunch of leaves, and saw that he had reached the river. The Maday was a broad, lazy streak of brown, quite different from the rushing Ellorin of Ossiria which he knew so well from his years in Leganne. Off in the distance, he could see a cluster of boats heading downriver at a pace leisurely enough that he supposed he could walk faster than the river’s flow. On the opposite bank, more cultivated fields stretched on as far as he could see, interrupted only by jagged, fading mountains to the southwest, perhaps even on the border with Madha. He squinted into the light which reflected off the river’s languid surface, hoping to see this Hari Vakusham in the place the priest had indicated.
To his left, a rocky outcropping jutted out from the shore. On it sat a wiry man clad in robes, wild hair standing out on his bronzed skin like a clump of frayed wool. He had found the man indeed. Approaching cautiously so as not to slip in the muddy riverbank, he made his way over to the outcropping until he stood at its base. Closer as he now was, Matthieu could see that the man’s eyes were closed, perhaps asleep or else in prayer. He tried his best to approach silently but a particularly slippery rock betrayed him; he suppressed an oath as his foot slid off the stone’s slick surface and he struck his knee on another. To his surprise, the old man’s eyes remained closed when he addressed him.
“Who are you?” he asked in heavily accented Vauish. Righting himself, Matthieu replied carefully. Father Girome had recommended this man highly, yet Matthieu hardly knew the priest either, much less this non-believer.
“Matthieu Sartonné of Heilicon,” he said, wincing in pain. “Father Girome sent me.”
“Is that true?” the old man said, opening one eye slightly. “Has he sent you to convert me where he has failed so many times before?”
“No,” Matthieu replied. “He said you could teach me the speech of Varakuma. I am to be engaged as his assistant and interpreter.”
“I hope he has not given up on my eternal soul,” the old man said with a grin. “But as for yours, perhaps the dear Father takes too little care. Is he not afraid that you will be swayed by my heathen ways?”
“He only said he trusted me.”
At that, the old man laughed, deep and long as the river before them. “Come here and sit with me. I must know this student which my old friend has now entrusted to my care.” Carefully, Matthieu clambered up the moist stones and joined Hari atop the broadest of them. “Now tell me of this place you say you come from. Heilicon: is it a large city?” It shocked him to hear that this man had not heard of his home. Surely, its fame or its fall had long ago reached even this distant part of the world. Not wishing to force this new acquaintance to also bear the burden Matthieu himself had borne since that day when he had first walked out into its ruins, he chose silence on it instead.
“Yes,” he said. “Quite large.”
“And from what does your family come?”
“My father was a merchant, but I attended university once, long before I arrived here.”
“Are you a merchant also?”
“No,” Matthieu replied. “That was my father’s path, not mine.”
“Then what is your path?”
“I suppose I do not know anymore. Much has transpired since I first began my education, and I fear that this thing is now far from my control.”
“I presume you are here with the Arcinans and their armies. Are you a scholar or a warrior?” Hari asked. The question almost made Matthieu himself laugh. It was something he too had wondered about many times, if not in so many words. In a way, he appreciated Hari’s bluntness.
“Neither. I have not yet finished my education and if I am to be a soldier, then I am a poor one for not even being trusted with a sword anymore.”
“Can any of us say that our education is finished?”
“I suppose not,” Matthieu said.
“Then the question remains, only changed: which do you aspire to be?”
“Are those my only choices?”
“Oh, there are many other kinds of people in this world, but I feel that you are none of those.”
“Then what is the difference between a scholar and a warrior? Does one simply wish to die while the other does not?” For his own part, Matthieu certainly did not want to die. Saying it was inevitable was quite a different thing than knowing the same, and it was this distinction that had driven him to survive as long as he had.
“No,” Hari said. “Both wish to die, for that is how men pass from this world into that of legend. The difference lies in how they wish to die. For the warrior, the only way acceptable is that which wins him glory on a strange and distant battlefield, as far away from his bed as he can manage. Through this, he believes, he will be remembered for his courage and sacrifice of life.”
“And the scholar?”
“For him, the best death will be on his bed, after a life lived in the pursuit of knowledge. He is to be remembered for his achievements and learning.”
“Then the question returns to me.”
“Yes, Matthieu. Which will you choose?”
“Must I choose now? Or even more importantly, can I still choose at all? My plans thus far have all met with ruin by hands much more powerful than mine.”
“But you must choose, for if you do not, then others surely will. They will make you either in their image or in that of a plaything, to be used until a replacement is found.”
“How can I choose for myself when I am so small compared to those who wish to use me?”
“That is your mistake: do not compare yourself to them. You are a man, they are men, and thus it ever shall be. Choose your path as this river has done. In the beginning, when the world was young, it was perhaps just a trickle of water rushing to the sea with no guidance but that of the land. However, the years rushed on with it, until the time came when the river had dug its own course. Though small, it was its own and belonged to none else. Finally, the weight of time and water created the river you see before you, strong and deep despite the rocks which once stood in its course. Even these have now been washed away.”
“Then if I am to decide my fate, what is best? How should history remember me?”
“All paths have their virtues, and all may act in their own way to please the gods. The forging of one’s own path leads to its own rewards. Decide for yourself the reward you wish to seek and live your life so that you may one day claim it.”
Silence settled over the pair, filled only by the gentle rushing of water before them. The sight of it was calming, yet the old man’s words hung heavy on his heart. It was such an easy thing to say, that a man must only choose the path of his life and follow it to its end, but what end could there be now? He had set his eyes to something such as this once before. Much as the feeling before in the streets of Varakuma, the future had once laid itself out in front of him with such eagerness, yet just as easily as it was conjured up, it was then swept away. Beate was gone, and with her went a loss of peaceful days and children yet unborn who almost felt real to him. So many dreams clung to for naught but the assurance that they must come to pass, driven away as smoke before the breeze.
Matthieu craved this assuredness again, deeper than anything he could remember, but what if it too was an illusion? How many times could a man be broken before he fell beyond repair? As much as he knew it was folly to think himself the only man to have suffered, or even that he alone had suffered the most, yet he knew his pains better than any knew his, or than he knew those of any other. If to risk it all again was to give himself to some new torment, then he would have to bear it as he had borne so much before. But if it were instead to taste of light, even but for a moment, would it not be worth all his pain and so much more?
The river rolled onward, down to the Great Bay and the immeasurable sea. Beyond it in the distant shadows of memory lay only one thing that he once knew, and that in another lifetime. Still it called to him in the dark of night before sleep, or the playing of wind in the trees, or an afternoon rain. Even in dreaming, he could not escape it; scenes lived once or never, called up to drag him away from what he knew to be here… What he knew to be real. Perhaps he would never be free of them, clinging as tightly about him as his own skin. Perhaps he never should.
Hari only looked ahead, saying nothing.
“Forgive me,” Matthieu said. “I was taken in thought.” The present called him back, away from places he would never again tread, if he had ever tread them once. “I suppose this was more than I had planned.” A smile came to his lips and Hari turned again to face him.
“Did Girome not warn you?” the old man asked.
“Indeed he did. Much more than language, he said. I suspect we shall have much to talk about.”
“Good!” Hari said. “Maybe one day Girome can leave that stuffy old mission as well.” Matthieu found it neither stuffy nor old, but did not contest it. Instead, he looked again to the river, now glistening with the sun a hand’s width above the eastern shore.
“Perhaps I should return,” he said. “The priest may be expecting me. But I will return soon, as we will leave for the south in a few months’ time. I hope to be more useful by then.”
“Many Corastians have lived here for years but only taken from our language enough to order soup or amuse children.” Matthieu thought of the priest then, and wondered if this was directed specially at him. “But you are young and if your will holds out, you may yet prove your worth in this thing. Only be patient.”
“I will do my best.”
“And that is all I will expect. Good day, Matthieu.”
“And to you,” he said, and picked his way back across mud and rocks and grassy paths to the streets of Varakuma. The priest had not yet returned by the time Matthieu did, though it did not worry him. Much more time in the library would be needed before their coming journey south, or even perhaps before Hari’s lessons in the Varakuma tongue would take hold.
Furthermore, he wondered if the man would be so easily distracted in the future as he was this morning. For Matthieu’s part, his motivation had little to do with why he found himself here, as opposed to some manor in Ossir or even back in what was left of Heilicon. While he had no wish to return to either, it was only honesty with himself that led him to see himself as he had explained to Hari, or at least so he thought. If the men who would be rulers reached such heights by fortune or by their own strength, Matthieu himself had precious little of either. That which he had could only be used carefully, to advance himself in some worthy cause before one or both expired.
He only hoped that such was yet farther off than he feared.