When we are patient, we are not only willing to wait, but also to do all in our power to bring about good. We do not worry about things that are outside our control because we understand that there are purposes behind all the circumstances we face and that, in the end, many of those circumstances will prove to be inconsequential.
– Words of the Emperor in Qepperdan, Matthieu Sartonné, as narrated to his page, Jarun Hichame
Winter had already faded before Matthieu realized it was gone. Its mildness gave way gently to spring, and with the shifting winds came a newness to the western city he now called home. Even though Varakuma lay directly across the Great Bay from Ossiria, something about this place still made it feel warmer. Perhaps the sun shone stronger here, or else it was the breeze blowing up from the deserts of distant Irritaschia that also brought with it greater quantities of that empire’s dark-skinned merchants than were to be seen in Heilicon before its ruin. He had long imagined places so far from home as this; perhaps every Corastian boy had done the same, but truly being here made even those most fantastic dreams seem like pale imitations by comparison.
Traffic in goods and men flowed in both directions on the Maday, off to the port of Mirron on the Bay or deeper inward nearly to the ancient Vedan capital of Qepperdan. Few of those latter men he saw here, the barbarous specters of youthful games and nightmares. The centuries between the present and the never-forgotten days when floods of savage horsemen from the north burned their way across entire nations had not been peaceful ones, that much was sure, but still the people of the south looked on them as a blessing. He wondered if there were also such memories in Virjatal, and how distant they must be now. Perhaps they had been lost under the recollections of more recent invaders, which now reluctantly included himself.
There were not so many Arcinans here as he first thought—Father Girome had told him only about three hundred lived in this city, with more in Huji to the west—but their mark was deep enough to make them seem twenty times their number. Some were pleasant enough. Father Piedre, one of the priests at the great church near the market, was much like Girome in many respects, though not as given to sharpness. As for the Speaker of Varakuma, a short man with a bird-like face named Deret, the fiery reputation preceding him made Matthieu grateful that he had only seen him once, and that from afar.
But still he found cause for worry this morning as he washed his plate from breakfast, for another Arcinan of infamous temper loomed over what would otherwise have been a morning of reading in the courtyard.
“The Governor-General is not the sort of man we can make to wait,” Father Girome said as he gathered up his hat and a bag of papers. “However, he will gladly make us to if we are late. Quickly now.”
Matthieu looked to the dish again and saw that it was not yet clean, so he set it back in the water to finish it upon their return. He dried his hands on a ragged cloth near the basin and made for the door.
“Your book,” Girome said, nodding toward a leather-bound volume sitting on the table near the window.
“Of course.” As tedious as this particular grammar was, Matthieu reasoned that it was better to bring it and not find the time to read than to leave it and have nothing with which to fill some hours waiting on the Governor-General’s pleasure. He shut the door behind the priest and followed him down familiar streets to Lord Ocsa’s manor.
While he had not yet been inside it, Matthieu knew the place as well as he knew any of the Arcinan edifices in the city, set apart by the fashion of their construction. Many of the Varakuma homes were little more than shacks, left to fill in spaces between their foreign counterparts, and the crooked side streets that branched off into them from the main avenues were not a place where an Ossirian speaking only passable Varakumi would be welcome. They made their way directly to the center of the city’s Arcinan quarter, where the cathedral not even as tall as had been Heilicon’s still managed to tower over the seemingly endless stalls of the river market.
The streets here were wider than those near the mission, enough so to admit five or six carriages or a sizable column of soldiers. On both sides, organized into neat blocks that defied the shambling native houses elsewhere in the city, stood the stone manors of merchantmen and nobles. In the midst of them was the grandest of all, given to the Governor-General of Virjatal. The building was not tall, but broad and sturdy, marked with iron-bounded balconies on the second floor and a single columned doorway in the center. Outside stood two gaudily dressed soldiers bearing arquebuses and short swords at their hips.
Father Girome approached them first while Matthieu fell in behind.
“I am to meet with the Governor-General,” he said as firmly as if the men had not been so armed. The left-hand soldier twisted his pimpled face with a scowl.
“So’s the whole city. State your name and business.”
“My name is Father Girome and my business is for your lord. Now admit us and I shall see no reason to remember that you stopped me from entering.” Matthieu felt his face flush and looked to the other guard, a taller man with a graying beard, who eyed the priest lazily.
“Go on, then,” he said, and a breath that had found itself caught in Matthieu’s chest released with a sigh. Shooting a silent protest at the both of them, the younger guard opened the door onto a squat room lined with deep wood and wide windows through which light from the courtyard spilled in. Varakumi servants darted in and out, barely acknowledging the presence of the priest and his translator. After all, these were men and women who more often waited upon lords and ambassadors, not merchant’s sons and dusty priests. There was nothing here to catch their eye.
Matthieu followed Girome out the opposite door out into the courtyard and there found his ear.
“That was bold of you, Father,” he whispered, walking quickly to keep up.
“Not at all. The boy looked not even your age and thinks to delay us. Time may run more slowly in this place than it does in Ossiria but that does not make it endless.” The doors in front of them were also open, revealing a short row of chairs against a wood-paneled wall. On the other side, Matthieu supposed, was the Governor-General’s audience chamber. A page met them inside, tall and slender for a Varakumi but with the same amber eyes he had seen in a thousand faces here.
“Father Girome,” he said with a slight bow. “A pleasure.”
“The pleasure is mine, Lian,” the priest replied, “and will be even greater when I best you again in the entrapment game.”
“We shall see. Now who is your companion?” The man turned to face him.
“Matthieu,” he said. “I am Father Girome’s assistant.” Lian smiled with only his lips.
“I have never known you to need an assistant. Perhaps the work grows too great?”
“Insurmountable, as always,” the priest laughed. “Is his Excellency ready to meet us?” The page fiddled with one of the toggles on his silk waistcoat.
“As ready as ever,” he said, and led them to another doorway. When it opened, Matthieu had expected perhaps something grander than what he saw. Instead of a throne room filled with gaudy ornamentation and clinging sycophants, he saw only a desk piled high with papers and a stocky man sat behind it at the end of a long chamber. Shutters along the right-hand wall let in streams of sunlight, but their warmth was not to be felt here.
The Governor-General of Virjatal Lord Ocsa Earant had all the appearance of an overdressed dockworker, with a thick neck and cropped, dark hair. Beside the stacks of forms and ledgers sat a cup and a plate of half-eaten bread. He looked up at his visitors warily until recognition struck him.
“How much have you come to pilfer this time, Father?” Lord Ocsa croaked.
“I have all our expenses listed here, my lord.” The priest approached with a folded paper in hand. Matthieu noted that the brashness with which Girome had treated the guard and even the cordiality of greeting Lian were both gone. It was not quite fear that had done it, he suspected, but the same caution reserved for a wild dog: acknowledgement of a thing’s ability to do him harm, but entirely devoid of respect.
Lord Ocsa snatched the paper out of Girome’s hand and looked it over quickly. He tossed it on top of his desk with equal dismissiveness.
“For these wages, I could outfit twenty new men of the Civil Guard. Twenty-five, if I armed them with clubs. And I will hear no excuses of your work being better than theirs.”
“Cost of food has risen significantly with fewer to harvest, my lord. I will also bring an assistant to help translate.” The Governor-General glanced up and caught Matthieu’s eye. In his gaze was the same mercantile ferocity he had once known in his father’s associates: whether men or goods, in their view the value of a thing lay only in the price it could command.
“This the war hero?” he asked the priest.
“The same. Lord Rodolf recommended him most highly.” Matthieu assumed that last to be a lie, if a pleasing one to hear, and hoped this would be the end of his part in the meeting.
Lord Ocsa paused, taking the paper in his hand again before offering it back to the priest.
“Lian will give you what you require. Now go before I reconsider.” The priest could be heard to sigh, and he gave the Governor-General a quick bow.
“My lord is gracious.” Lord Ocsa groaned as Matthieu and Girome turned to go. Relief began to fill him at the prospect of escaping further questioning when the lord’s voice called to him again.
“Not you,” he said. Matthieu turned and saw the man motioning to him. “You stay.” He approached the desk with deference and waited until he heard the door close behind him before he spoke.
“I am Matthie-”
“I know how you are,” the Governor-General interrupted. “Everyone does. At least everyone who followed the news out of Ossiria. They say you gave up Ment under torture. Is it true?” The man’s bluntness in the subject caught Matthieu off-guard, but he tried not to let it show.
“No, my lord. By the time the Inquiry had begun questioning me, the king’s armies had already found him. I fear my part was not quite as grand as the tales made it out to be.”
Where Matthieu might have expected laughter from another man, Lord Ocsa only snorted in derision.
“So, then,” he said. “You are no war hero after all. I might have figured as much. However, it changes nothing.” In Matthieu’s mind, it changed a great many things, if not everything. He voiced his confusion simply.
“I do not have much use for a belligerent old priest and his doe-eyed translator. What I do have need of is information. This is what the Company requires to maintain order in this forsaken place.” Apprehension clutched at him, and he felt himself yet again in one of so many situations in which only his compliance to some greater power would see him through. Or at least what could be made to appear like compliance while he served his own ends.
It was the throne room in Heilicon, or the dungeon of Fleidt, or Lord Gerhart’s tent after crossing the Ellorin. In all those moments, retreat had been merely another word for inaction, though he could only guess at where he would be if he had chosen such a path instead. Perhaps still shivering in a stone cell, or dead along with so many Mentites on the East Fork. However much he hated it, he knew he must once again prove himself useful to some powerful man in order to get what he wanted most, and that was to survive.
“Tell me how I may be of assistance,” he offered.
“Your priest can go places that my men cannot, or rather where I simply refuse to waste them. Arcinan blood is no small thing in these parts. You will note carefully what you see in the villages you visit and report back to me upon your return. Names, weapons, riches. In great detail.” His gut twisted. He had never thought himself a spy. The things he noticed would hardly be of interest to the Governor-General: how a man was clothed, how he carried himself, or the words behind his eyes. The words behind this one’s were venomous things, seeking deadly ends. Matthieu had met his share of vipers before, yet now he found himself standing across from an entire pit of them in the shape of a man.
If Lord Ocsa wanted an accounting of the villages south of Varakuma, he could do much better than someone little more than a youth whose only experience in war was in venturing to escape it at every opportunity. With Lamatali bandits now roaming the countryside as far east as Joorya, depending on the contents of his future report, war could once again prove a certainty. He would desperately avoid it again if such was in his power.
Yet Matthieu knew enough to see that if he refused to perform this task, the Governor-General could just as easily find another more attentive and likely more vicious as well who would. Destruction would be inevitable then, and all the priest’s work would come to naught in the end. On the other hand, even if Matthieu’s report was only truthful after a fashion, without being complete in such details that could prove dangerous, it would still be the truth. He would have to be exceptionally careful.
“Anything else, my lord?” And with it went the slightest implication that there must be something in return, though he knew that to voice such a question outright would be the gravest insult.
Lord Ocsa evidently caught Matthieu’s meaning.
“You will be pleased to know that your services will not go unrewarded, though the circumstance and nature of such will be at my pleasure.”
“You are gracious, my lord,” he replied, and that much was true, at least in this moment. Could even the Governor-General say about the next?
“Indeed. Now return to your priest before he causes too much trouble.”
“Yes, my lord,” Matthieu said. He gave a quick bow and spun to leave, his steps quickening until he reached out and grabbed hold of a golden door handle. It felt cool against his flushed and sweaty palm.
“Oh, and Matthieu?” Ocsa said, stopping him where he stood. He turned slightly, catching a glimpse of the Governor-General with one hand on his cup. “You know they worship devils? It is true. Their gods are naught but demons in the shape of angels.”
“I cannot say I have heard that, my lord. I have only studied a little, but-”
“Ask your priest,” he interrupted. “If he does not tell you the same, then either he is lying or simply refuses to believe, but it is true. The Varakumi may give up his idols for convenience’s sake, but the desires of his heart are never far from them. Trust me.”
Trusting Lord Ocsa was the last thing Matthieu wanted to do. However, the predicament in which he had just placed himself would require reliance, which often took on the appearance of trust. As much as he did not want to pit himself against the priest, who was stubborn but fair, it was ultimately the Governor-General of Virjatal who controlled his fate.
He stepped out into the corridor beyond and closed the door behind him. Girome swooped in immediately, with Lian nowhere to be seen. The priest maintained his pace and led Matthieu back toward the courtyard and out the way they had come. He carried a small bag of coins at his hip.
“What did he want?” Father Girome asked, not concealing the venom in his voice.
“He asked about the campaign in Ossiria. Only another admirer.” Girome stopped, turning on Matthieu with sharpness.
“That is no man to joke about, Matthieu. I would not trust him to watch a single copper star.”
“I understand, Father,” he said, suppressing the urge to bite back at his chastening.
“Not yet.” Without another word, Girome continued out the other end of the courtyard, leaving Matthieu to catch up. The walk back to the mission seemed much longer for their silence.
The priest had largely returned to his normal disposition by their evening meal, but Matthieu still sensed some lingering anger in the terseness of his speech. He thought to watch Girome the next day, but only found a letter on the table that morning that he had gone to the market for provisions. In two days hence, they would leave the city for some villages to the south. The intervening time Matthieu decided to spend reading, since even his practice with Hari could only take him so far with more than the rudiments of Varakumi speech.
What he found was much the same as had been reported by previous generations of priests, who had discovered to their irritation that proper speech and that used by the common people were two vastly different things. A slim volume of untranslated poetry Matthieu had stumbled upon in the library had proven nearly entirely indecipherable, even when written in Corastian characters instead of the looping cursives of the Virjatali authors. He assumed it must be over a hundred years old, collected by some long-dead priest perhaps in the construction of one of the grammar texts that presently troubled him so.
The thought that vexed him even more was that he found himself learning one language in order to learn yet another, neither of which might prove as useful as he would like in the villages along the Maday. Another priest writing before even Father Girome’s time spoke of a mongrel tongue used farther south on the way to the Great Bay, requiring yet another interpreter who could pick out the native vocabulary from the Ferrian and even Irritaschian words that had entered the speech there. All this only threatened him with feelings of great inadequacy, which would have been even greater had he not reminded himself that this current commission of his was not taken on entirely by choice. Certainly, he had chosen to remain with Father Girome after a sense, but largely because there was no other way for him to survive here. He was happy here, and he reminded himself of that as well, but the thought still remained that this place was not his home.
After breaking his fast on fruit and bread and reading for a few unproductive hours, he set the grammar text aside. If there was only so much he could learn from Hari, he reasoned, the same could be said for the book. He thought to move away from the language if only for a moment and returned to the library. While he wished it was the Ossirian original instead of the Vauish translation, Friedrich Hasche’s Lives of the Saints stood out to him this morning. Certainly, he could not have said the same before, either in Heilicon or in Leganne, where far greater libraries had promised him so much more, from tales of the eighty-year Taruschkani Wars of Succession or the intrigues of the Old Empire in the days before its collapse. Here, though, he had to make do with what he found on hand, and wondered just how many priests had encountered the same dilemma over the previous decades and approached it with the same solution.
The volume was a hefty one, with a crumbling spine of green leather and flaking gold lettering. Printed in Meddelburg in the six hundred and thirty-seventh year of the Common Reckoning, according to the elaborate frontispiece, it must have been one of the first such books completed on the press. Turning to the back, he noted over eight hundred pages. It would be a long read, but perhaps not longer than his coming journey. He took some bread and dried fish from the kitchen and sat himself beneath a tree in the courtyard.
Scents of dust and rain came rushing up over far seas and even farther deserts to the south, but the threat of clouds to his book was still hours off by Matthieu’s reckoning. He opened to the first story after the introduction, that of Saint Jerethus of Balach. Now was he named after the old Corastian emperor, or the other way around? Perhaps there was no way to be sure without hunting down such a volume in the library, if one even existed here. It did not affect the outcome, however, as just as always, the young evangelizer was still beaten to death on the steps of Venera’s temple in Volaska.
Matthieu read on, not skipping even one because he could think of little else with which to occupy himself, but even this became tiresome after the sixth or seventh violent martyrdom. It was not always such that the wages of meritorious deeds were death; quite a few saints even managed to die peacefully in their beds, after which their corpses would sprout flowers or their statues were said to heal those who came to pray in their shadows. Still, he could not but feel that these stories put forward death as some more pleasing alternative to life, even one lived in purest belief.
Many had died for the faith, and many still would if the rumors from the southwest were true. The east—home, or what was left of it—still reeled from the devastation of Ment’s war, and could not even the vilest sinner who had received the clothing of a child of light claim a martyr’s death at the hands of the Cyrnnish aggressors who murdered for the sake of their confession? While he doubted that such a fate could ever be called absolution, he wondered how many new saints had died and would yet be raised again in future memories from the ashes of Heilicon, Leganne, Meddelburg, Rickerspont, or a hundred villages now given over to weeds and flame.
Most of all, he wondered what it was he was willing to die for, if anything, and if his inability to say for certain made him deficient in some way. He was certainly not prepared to die for the League when the opportunity had presented itself in the fastnesses of Fleidt, nor for the Evangelical Brethren and their forsaken cause in Ossir, despite all Lord Leopold’s childlike hopes to the contrary. Besides, the latter would have been rendered moot by the discovery of Ment’s encampment regardless of his own demise at the Inquiry’s hands. The night along the road to Varakuma that had claimed young Andoram stood out to him as one such occasion when death had seemed an easy thing on someone else’s behalf, yet he had neither given nor received a killing stroke. In the days since his return to Lord Rodolf’s company, when the news of the village’s ravaging had struck him as if a physical blow, he had learned well enough that the willingness to kill for a cause and that to die for one were quite different things, if perhaps cousins.
Killing for something was not enough, he decided. A million men had made such a choice since the world began, yet precious few could ever say they had truly changed a thing in so doing. Thinking back on Hari’s words, to die was to pass into memory. But who would do the remembering and how? These were not questions Matthieu could answer; best to leave them to God and generations yet unborn. As for the moment, he only turned his attention back to the nearby river, pressing ever onward to the vastness of the Great Bay, spilling out into a trackless sea. The water that fell from craggy peaks of the Vedanland to leave cities of the steppe and shore behind and eventually reach the ocean beyond was ignorant of all these points along the journey when first it sprang from its wells deep beneath the earth. So would he be: adrift in something greater than he, but ever moving forward, to what end he could not yet know.
He rose from his reverie in the courtyard, replaced the book on the table and left the mission behind for what he intended to be a moment. Walking swiftly, he managed to avoid any greetings in Varakuma or Arcinan that would pull his thoughts away from the great questions that arose from thoughts of martyrs and holy mysteries. The familiar riverside path came upon him, and presented him with a choice.
If a left turn would take him to where Hari waited in meditation on so many cool mornings and then on into the noontime swelter, Matthieu would take the right-hand path instead. There was nothing the man could say to him that would subdue all his yearning after answers. Reeds and rocks fell behind him as he picked his way toward the shore, near a cluster of mangroves clutching at the river like tangled fingers. He seated himself in view of the Maday, nearly as wide at this point as the very horizon. Southward it flowed, steadily now as it had for untold ages past. Surely, it would last two days more, and the thought tugged at him with something like fear, a wicked undercurrent sharper than anything at the river’s disposal.
It was uncertainty, he realized, not quite fear. He centered his thoughts on it and tried to arrange the confusion within him: so much could go wrong outside the city. For so long now, he had felt safe here. Perhaps too long. Was it wise then to leave the only place in months where he could feel so? He cautioned himself that to assume peace was naive, yet at the same time he knew to expect the worst would only twist him in the end. There was goodness here in Varakuma, despite all the Governor-General’s threatenings and conspiracies, despite the news of Lamatali armies on the march. It was this that caused him to doubt his contentment as only simple complacency. While Cyrnne had never brought upon him such illusions of comfort, the island of the Bathala had, as well as the university in Leganne. Or had too many months and years passed since then to remember them truly? Had he been just as uncertain then as he was now, only without the pleasant glow of hindsight to inform his recollection?
All he could truly hope to know was now, and even that knowledge eluded him. The river flowed, and with it went his thoughts to a place he had only read about in books older than his only two companions. Whatever the truth was, here in the city or in the southern villages, was something he would have to live in order to know. His skin prickled at the thought despite the punishing heat from the sun above, which had nearly descended to touch the opposite shore when finally he made his way back to the dusty mission which was now his home.
Father Girome arrived home after nightfall, leading a cart full of supplies for their journey. Matthieu helped him unload it and the two spoke of the priest’s errands that day, but little else. The next day was just as uneventful, spent largely in preparing the bags and crates that would see them through their month-long trip downriver. Much of what they bore was familiar to him from marches with two armies, but other things spoke of their distinct mission: several dozen pamphlets printed with prayers in both Varakumi and Arcinan; a small bag of devotional bracelets marked with fired-clay images of saints; and several bundles of uncut cloth. It was of local make, from what Matthieu could tell, by its unfamiliar patterns and the roughness of its weave against his fingers. Though finer examples certainly existed here from intricate cotton to silks, just as they did in Corastia, those would be beyond the means of Father Girome’s meager allowance from the Governor-General.
They rose separately in darkness, Matthieu having awoken first, judging by the silence across the courtyard. He reasoned it was nervousness that had done it. Perhaps not uncertainty in his ability to perform his required tasks, but rather that so much of what might happen could be out of his control. That was what he had felt here after so many weeks of living in the mission—even the smallest degree of control over his routine, if only through increasing familiarity—and this journey promised comparatively fewer guarantees of that sort. Without knowing exactly how or why, he felt as though he were looking out over a shadowy gulf, beyond which was something he could not know. He chose not to bring it up with the priest, who would certainly not mock him for it, but neither was he likely to understand a feeling which even Matthieu himself could not put into words.
Father Girome readied himself quickly and met Matthieu at the front door, already waiting with his bags. They locked the door to the mission and stole off toward the ferry, saying nothing to interrupt the predawn twittering of birds. The beginning of their voyage was not far downstream from where Matthieu had sat watching the river a few days before. When they reached it, they found the flat-bottomed barge already moored there and taking on a few passengers bearing loads likely purchased at the market the previous morning. A few stout porters bore away wicker baskets full of onions and fruit that would take their place with Girome’s belongings in spaces rented out down below in the hold. Matthieu offered in broken Varakumi to take his own comparatively small bag with him, but one of the men insisted; he relented only after removing Lives of the Saints.
Behind him, the priest was negotiating their payment in even worse Varakumi. He moved to accompany Girome, though the man was already walking away with a neutral look on his face before he could reach him.
“They will ever try,” he said, and made his way to the hold. Matthieu assumed it meant the priest had won out, but did not follow him to confirm. Instead, he took up a place along the rail facing the broad Maday, which had begun to take on a fiery cast as the run rose to his left with a crown of crimson rays.
Little waves glittered in the wake of distant fishing boats and a heron darting into the deep water at the edges of early morning mist. He had never thought to arise at such an hour as this, when even roosters and dogs were only beginning to do the same. It was beautiful like nothing he had ever presumed himself capable of imagining. Thoughts of what could be bothering the priest faded like the last traces of twilight stars in the ever-lightening sky above. If Matthieu had been one to place much trust in omens, he would have taken this sight before him to be a good one.
They cast off shortly afterward, as ferrymen with long poles pushed the barge out toward the center of the river with its swifter current. For all Matthieu could tell, theirs was the largest boat on the water this morning, but this did not last. By the time the sun had risen a hand or two above the eastern bank, larger ships could be seen approaching on banks of oars from both ends of the river. He tried to determine where they might hail from by the colors they bore, though none were familiar to his eyes; likely Ferrian or Surinese, as he knew only a few of the former’s heraldry and none of the latter’s heraldry. The sun had reached its zenith by the time the farthest upstream had pulled up even with the ferry, and Matthieu could see more clearly the bronzed sailors working its deck. A few shouted something to no one in particular on his much smaller boat, but he could not understand their clipped, foreign speech.
Eventually, the current and oarsmen took the ship away toward Mirron, leaving their barge alone again near the center of the mighty Maday River. It was only after this that the priest emerged from the hold, looking wearier than Matthieu had seen him before. Graying hair stood out above his ears and dark rings colored the pits of his eyes.
“I never could sleep well on these ferries,” Girome said. “Something about the rocking.” He looked to the book resting on Matthieu’s lap and chuckled. “Quite a volume for this journey. With a month yet before we return, you may even finish it. I have been in Varakuma longer than you have been alive and I never could.”
“It is slow going,” Matthieu admitted. “But punctuated enough by death and dismemberment to hold one’s interest.”
“Yes. From what I recall, Hasche is quite taken by that sort of thing. What about you?” If he was being honest with himself, Matthieu believed that the preoccupation with meeting a violent end at the hands of heretics and blasphemers was better reserved for those who fancied it. His questions from several days before still lingered without satisfactory resolution, and each tale of martyrdom and miracles only deepened the chasm he perceived between himself and these good people of faith. While saints were all exemplary in their own way, was it not the duty of each child of God to strive toward their examples? And must doing so necessarily culminate in a similar end?
This and other doubts plagued his mind, not all brought on by this particular book, but certainly stirred up to greater awareness by it. He would not ask all these things at once. Instead, he chose to start with what he assumed would be the most basic of them.
“What is a miracle, Father?” The priest’s brows furrowed slightly in puzzlement.
“What do you mean?”
“As I was reading some of these stories, I thought more on them. Each saint must have miracles attributed to them before they can truly be called such.”
“This is so. What stories have you read so far?”
“Saint Maunde, for one.” Girome nodded.
“A Heiliconian, was he not?”
“Our city’s very patron. I also read of Saint Adrianne of Tardascha and Saint Jerethus of Balach.”
“And what is it that confused you?”
“These miracles seem to only be called such because we do not know what else to call them. They are necessarily inexplicable, yes?”
“What do you think?” The question irritated Matthieu at first; he felt he had just said as much, only phrased more politely as a question. He would have to push farther.
“It is said Saint Maunde’s statue in Heilicon wept blood at the moment the Torisian Emperor Caenish IV confessed his sins before God and accepted the holy clothing. But how can they know this? And even if the statue did appear to weep, who can say the true cause of such a sign?” Only the sound of the river lapping against the side of the boat came over them for a moment before Father Girome responded.
“I cannot, nor would I try to. There are more important matters facing me here.” But this only deepened Matthieu’s unease. He wanted to ask: but how can the Church be trusted if even these stories cannot be trusted? Even knowing the priest to be a lenient man when it came to orthodoxy, yet he understood that such a question would go too far.
“How can I know which of these miracles really occurred and which are merely stories?” he asked instead. The tightness that settled on the old priest’s face told Matthieu the man had caught his implication.
“To attempt an answer to that would be to drive yourself to an early grave. I can only say for myself that we are where we may do the most good. Ours is to heal not only bodies, but spirits as well. Take care not to forget either one.” Matthieu sighed at this new chastisement. Even expecting it did not make the warmth leave his face or excite him for further conversations with the priest. When the man excused himself to the rear of the boat, Matthieu did not call after him or seek his company again when he returned.
It was not quite anger that he felt at Girome’s words; it was closer perhaps to shame. For one, he must continually remind himself that for all the priest’s variations between cordiality and sly wit, he was still ordained as an evangelizer first. Whatever else he was, those things must necessarily follow rather than dominate. Second, Matthieu had cause to wonder at the expenditure of hard-fought funds from the Governor-General on so many pamphlets when the same scourge that had claimed uncounted masses in Heilicon also ran wild through the countryside south of Varakuma. Was there not some better way to spend what the priest believed to be a pittance?
Admittedly, this second question was harder for Matthieu to answer truthfully. While he had survived the plague’s passage those many months ago, he was just as confounded as the dead ones as to how he had done so. Perhaps he had managed to avoid the foulest vapors of the sickness to even this distant end of the Great Bay, though this seemed unlikely given how close he had come to the dead and dying. And while he could not fully understand the preoccupation with the miracles of long-dead saints, something about his own survival still struck him as inexplicable. Whether or not it bore favorable comparison to the weeping statue of Saint Maunde as a sign of divine favor was a matter best decided by some yet-unborn High Messenger in Volaska. Regardless, any answers he could imagine gaining from the priest only came up short, and so he held his tongue for much of that day and into the next.
It was their fifth day on the river when, under a high-hanging sun, they came upon their first stop. From what Matthieu had seen along the way, Yusanai was a Varakumi village like any other: clusters of wooden shacks set back from the Maday on a low hill, piled into a rather large and muddy clearing in the otherwise dense forest growth. Perhaps three hundred people lived here, almost half of whom were stricken with the plague; nearly thirty lay dead already, from what the boy who met them on the path up from the river had said. Among the hovels ran laughing children, as if unaware of the suffering on all sides. Several of the older and more feeble sat against their houses or a tree here and there, faces downcast as they saw death creep into their midst like a gnawing bunch of worms. Though not all died of the plague, many would yet feel its bite and languish under its wasting effects.
The first of these shacks—though by no means the largest—belonged to the village’s leader, Father Girome said as they approached the doorway
“Good Brother Hairan,” he called to those inside, “I have come back at last. Show me to your afflicted and I shall do what I can.”
The village leader came as summoned: he was a stringy man who looked to be nearly fifty years old, though Matthieu could not tell if this was his true age or merely an outward sign of a life spent in harsh labor out of doors. It had been many months since Matthieu had last lived among the class of his former social peers of Heilicon, who were far too concerned with the making and keeping of their money than with the sweat which bought it. He never permitted himself to miss that past life too much anymore after these months in the mission, for every new day since the attack on Heilicon had thus far seemed to him an unwarranted extension. How many times he should have perished already, he could not and did not wish to count.
“We pray to God already, Father. Go to the next house now, they are very sick,” the man said as he tried to usher Matthieu and the priest away from his door.
“Turn away a servant of God, in the very hour that you cry out for help? Why, you may as well ask the Almighty to plant your seed and harvest your crops if you will not accept proper medicine! Stand aside, friend, and let me work.” Ever the obstinate one, Father Girome gently but firmly pushed his way past the man and into the tiny house. The interior was lit by a pile of glowing coals, above which hung a copper kettle.
“Good,” said the priest, now more than a little exasperated. “You at least have hot water. Now fetch me a cloth to make my compresses.” The increasingly harried father bowed before ducking into a side room. In a moment, he had returned with a ragged shirt in hand. “Thank you,” replied Father Girome. “And do you have any Saint Adrianne’s leaf?” The poor man stared back blankly. “Do you have any… Oh, of course.” The priest turned to Matthieu for help. “Do you know the word for Saint Adrianne’s leaf in Varakumi?”
“No,” he replied, “but I think I can explain it to him.” His Varakumi was still sorely lacking, but he somehow managed to express to the distressed man that Father Girome sought the leaves of a medicinal plant common to Virjatal. After several broken sentences and some gestures, Hairan finally understood.
“Ah, you mean tibal? This one? Yes, we have here!” He darted over to the stove and lifted a small bundle of leaves, waving them in Father Girome’s direction.
“Yes, very good! Now excuse me, brother. I will need your kettle and the… tibal.” After another series of bows, the man deferred to Father Girome and backed away from the fire. “Now could you show Matthieu to the patient while I prepare the compresses?”
“Yes,” Hairan replied, noticeably relieved. “I will take you now. Follow please.” Matthieu fell in behind and was led into the room where the man had fetched the shirt. It was even smaller than the main room and looked to be simply an ill-planned addition to the rest of the structure. In the center was a single large mat woven of reeds, and on it lay a girl who looked to be a few years younger than Matthieu. She was silent, yet she shivered under the obvious influence of the fever.
He had seen this before, in what felt like another life: Heide Kerns, the sister of his beloved Beate, had been this way in the days preceding her death. The memory formed a hard lump in Matthieu’s throat that he could not swallow. He only hoped it was not too late for this girl as well, especially considering Father Girome’s presence this time. Beneath the old priest’s rather audacious demeanor, he was a gifted listener and an even better healer. Matthieu’s trust in Girome’s skill with medicine outweighed, at least temporarily, his distrust of the man’s evangelical motives.
“Her name?” Matthieu asked in awkward Varakuma. The father responded in equally awkward Vauish, willing as other of his people in the city were to prove their knowledge of the outsiders’ tongue.
“Deema,” he said. “Fifteen years.”
God, Matthieu thought as the dreadful memories filled him even more. The same age Beate was.
Father Girome disrupted Matthieu’s revery for a moment when he called from the kitchen.
“How is she, Matthieu?”
“She is very weak,” he responded, “but I cannot tell more. I trust you can, Father.”
“We shall see,” said the priest. He entered the room with the kettle in one hand and a moist bundle of Saint Adrianne’s leaf wrapped in cloths in the other. Pulling a stool closer to the bed frame with his foot, he seated himself near the girl and placed the kettle on the ground. “I will apply the poultices now, Brother. Would you like to stay with her?”
“Yes, Father,” the man replied, “I will stay. If sickness returns, I then know what to do.”
“A wise choice,” said Father Girome. “And Matthieu, what will you-” He looked up and must have noticed the fear on Matthieu’s face. “Matthieu?”
“Yes, Father?” he said.
“You may wait outside, if you like. I know this brings back painful memories for you.”
Matthieu swallowed as best he could though his mouth was dry, then stepped outside the hut and sat on the ground. His concern was not that the plague would take him as well, since he had survived it once and surely would again, but rather that he would be overcome by his own recollections of it.
Thousands in Heilicon and the surrounding villages had surely died of this plague so many months ago, all because a general who was now dead after the same fashion could not slow his men as they marched on to a victory they would never see. All because a young boy in Cyrnne had been turned into the puppet of zealots, bent on cleansing the world. If the world needed cleansing indeed, then it should be to destroy its petty tyrants and all those who seek to elevate themselves above their fellows.
Always the common people struggled for a world which would give them their due as human beings, as children of that God which gave them breath, and always they were beaten down and trodden underfoot by generals, sovereigns, and the ravenous dogs to whom such threw their scraps. It was the tender ones like Heide, like Beate, like Deema here, who fell to the ravages of sickness, hunger, and their fellow man.
Yet even in the midst of all this horror, there was Father Girome. Matthieu had blamed him at first for his efforts to convert these people to a church he knew was more corrupt than any nation in Corastia, yet here again was a deep concern for individuals behind that evangelical face of his. He wondered if it were possible that the man could have done more good without joining the priesthood, but then he reminded himself that there were only two paths from Corastia into the Qenshi States: the Star and the sword. The merchants brought their wares and left again with their carts overflowing, but only the clergy and the army would have any permanent presence in these lands. From his crumbling books to the present, it was the way it had always been.
Father Girome could be heard from inside the house, speaking to Deema’s father; it was now time to move on to the next sufferer.
“Apply those compresses just as I showed you, to her forehead and also to her chest, at least three times a day. You said there is much tibal here, but remember that will not be the case if more is required to check the spread of the sickness. Pray that your daughter is healed soon. We will return in two weeks after we have visited more surrounding villages.”
“Yes, Father,” Hairan said. “I do that. I pray Deema that if she leaves as well, she sees Satra and Jusaka again. They left already not long ago.” Father Girome put a hand on the man’s shoulder.
“You are stronger than you know, Brother. God will provide as always.” The look that passed between the two of them told Matthieu something of why priests, despite their vows of celibacy, were still called father: such combinations of concern, admonishment, and sincerity could come from no other kind of man. It made him miss his own most dreadfully.
Before moving on to the next patient, the priest reached into his bag and handed Hairan a twine-bound stack of books, though Matthieu could not make out the titles. He thought it strange, but did not question it further.
While the frustration at Father Girome’s stubbornness remained, he felt it soften as he observed the man work. The next house was much the same, and he sat in long periods of silence as old women complained of hunger with their sons sick or already dead, and little children shrieked and played outside in blissful ignorance. There was little he could do here, he reasoned, except translate when none around him could speak even a little Vauish, and many did.
They did not linger in Yusanai for longer than it took the next ferry to reach the village that night. Father Girome mentioned something about the place not being safe, though Matthieu could not imagine the river being much less dangerous. He slept so well that is surprised him the following morning. Three more villages lay ahead on their route, each one creeping closer to the western border of Ferria. Much as he had suspected back in Varakuma, the language here became less and less intelligible, until the most he could do was ask who in the village spoke Varakumi. In the second, not even this was manageable, and he and the priest communicated using mostly gestures and a few local words Matthieu had picked up in their last stop. He reasoned that the plague was not quite so bad here, where the regions between larger ports gave way to broad fields and encroaching forests on either side of the Maday.
It was unclear to him just how much progress they were making downriver until about three days out from Yusanai, a double-decked galley bearing Ferrian colors pulled alongside and demanded passports of the Corastian passengers. Initially, Matthieu feared the worst, having nothing of the sort. He deferred to the priest, who explained their mission and intentions to stop before the border and return to Varakuma at once.
“Something about rogue Arcinans pillaging their way across the northern marches,” Girome said to him once the Ferrian sailors were on their way again. “But you know all about that.”
Matthieu only looked ahead as the other ship sped downriver on its oars. Inside, however, he searched for the words he would need to speak with the priest. Nothing came, at least nothing that would make him sound anything but defensive or bitter. He waited instead.
Girome sat beside him, resting his elbows on the rail of the ferry.
“If you would tell me what troubles you, I will listen.” Matthieu snorted dismissively, then regretted it when the priest did not react. Perhaps he would not search for more comfortable words after all.
“You think me a sinner,” he said finally. However, there was no anger in his voice; it sounded as if he were simply stating that the sky was blue or the river was wide.
“Are not we all sinners?” Girome answered.
“You know what I mean. I contended with you.”
“Ah.” His companion paused, as if searching his memory for the cause. “Do not be so hasty to condemn an old man who thought no ill toward you.” Matthieu was silent. Truthfully, he felt little ill will toward the man; that which he assumed to be there has surely been the priest’s, or at least that was his assumption. It troubled him now to hear that his feelings had not been reciprocated after all, and that only he harbored any anger at their previous argument.
Girome continued without turning to face Matthieu.
“I was once much like you, perhaps. The mysteries of the world were only treasures to be sought, and I would be the one to seek them out. But this was a young man’s hope, and ultimately a young man’s folly. There are many things that we cannot know in this life, and perhaps many that we should not. The pursuit of knowledge is always to be commended, but just like the pursuit of wealth, obsession will ever be destructive. Do not stray too far down either path and you will be safer for it. Happier too.”
He put a hand on Matthieu’s shoulder before rising to see to something else in the hold. It was not quite the answer he had wanted, but perhaps the best he could expect for the time being. Reflecting back on his months in Girome’s company, he reasoned that he may have misjudged the man. Though that time was still rather short, Matthieu supposed he knew his moods and vices as well as he knew those of anyone, barring only his own. The priest was sharp of wit, given to loud laughter after drink, and firm of friendship when needed: the very archetype of an Ossirian man made flesh. Considering all this, there was little cause for resentment, though concluding thus and changing his own mind were two quite separate matters.
Above all, he should not expect the priest to solve Matthieu’s every dilemma in moments, or even at all. Such questions as he had were those over which saints and poets had wrestled their entire lives, if only to catch a glimpse, and who was he compared to such giants of intellect? On the one hand, he feared that such a comparison would surely condemn him to the suffering of ignorance, while on the other, it stood to reason that the province of each man was simply to answer as best they could.
Those answers were nowhere to be found at the moment, but may indeed come someday. For the meantime, Matthieu must put away any ill feelings toward his only other fellow countryman for weeks in any direction and see to his inquiries when circumstances afforded him the luxury. It would take time, as it always did, but it was necessary.
They disembarked the next day at a bustling port near the Ferrian border, apparent by the occasional Arcinan ship at the docks. Matthieu reasoned that the same would not have been so welcome farther south. Girome managed to find them a single room for the night and the both of them slept better on land with some fish soup in their bellies. Morning came with the crowing of roosters and sounds of commerce along the riverbank in two languages Matthieu could recognize and a few he could not. With so much traffic coming up the Maday, it was not long before the pair found suitable transport upriver on an Urvati barge called Fai Lin. While Matthieu had seen a few Vedans before in Varakuma, that had always been merely in passing. He would keep his distance as best he could from such horse thieves and barbarians until it was time to leave their company altogether.
Nine uneasy days on the water under the barge’s single deck of oars saw them pulling into a familiar place once more: Yusanai, their first stop on the way south. Counting back the days in his head, it surprised Matthieu to realize that a month had passed so quickly while still feeling like each day was a labor. Perhaps time did run differently here after all, as Girome had said. They followed the porters off the dock and the priest went to find an ox cart that could take their now much reduced supplies up the winding path to the village.
Looking around, he sensed a more festive mood to Yusanai than he thought it might have warranted, as less than a few weeks ago, many had been lying afflicted or already dead. The stalls for merchants and even some of the houses in the distance were alive with little banners in a dozen colors, and a new liveliness had made its way into the usually languid Varakumi pace. Floating on the same evening breeze was a clanging music, joyous if strange to ears yet unaccustomed to it. He would have to ask his companion about what seemed to Matthieu a rather sudden change.
Matthieu’s hand went to the purse at his belt containing a few remaining copper stars from what Father Girome had given him. A woman seated behind a wide blanket nearby sold a variety of fruits more plentiful and in more brilliant colors than anything he had even seen in Varakuma; he bought a few green ones the size of apples and left to rejoin the priest.
As he approached, he found Girome engaged in boisterous conversation with a man he recognized from the previous visit. Hainan? Matthieu thought, hoping he would not have to speak too much and thereby prove himself wrong. He took his place beside the priest and begged their pardon for the interruption.
“Excuse me,” he said, and presented one of the fruits to the priest, who took it with a smile.
“Thank you,” Girome replied. “Hairan, you remember Matthieu.”
“Yes, I remember,” the man said. He gave a little bow, which Matthieu returned. Something about him looked as if a great weight had been lifted off him. The reason why was soon apparent, standing behind her father.
“And this is-”
“Deema,” he said. His eyes were not for the priest any longer, but for her, risen from the same death that had claimed so many before. Gone was the pallor of that sickness from her face, now given to the warm brown tones of so many in Varakuma.
Unbidden, he thought of distant Katahum, long given over to where only dreams remained. Though Deema was not so much a recurrence of her as she was a rhyme, she was undeniably beautiful. It warmed his heart to see her alive and well after the piteous state she was in when he had last left Yusanai, such that he could say now more to her for a moment.
She looked first to Father Girome, her own dark eyes inquisitive.
“Dúsheli kan Vaukume?” she asked the priest.
“Ra,” Matthieu interjected before his companion could reply. “I speak Vauish. And you?”
Deema smiled shyly and lowered her head.
“Some. I have a few books.” During his months in the city, he had met many Varakumi who could speak Vauish with some degree of skill, though most were shy to do so. However, Deema’s confidence surprised him, even surpassing some of the riverside porters who dealt with Arcinans more regularly than anyone in Yusanai ever could.
“You speak it quite well for one not from Corastia.” After a brief silence, Girome cleared his throat. Matthieu had almost forgotten that the man was there
“Let us talk on the way,” the priest said. He motioned to the man loading their belongings onto a cart for the short trip uphill to Hairan’s home. “Shall I expect more of your juanyai this time, Hairan?” The four of them began walking up the path, Matthieu to the right of the priest and Deema taking the lead in front of her father.
“Sorry, the wute is still too green. You will take suanbe ban instead?”
“That would be delightful. Did you cook it this year, Deema?”
“I did,” she called, turning to face them while maintaining her sprightly pace. “Jula showed me.”
“A fine teacher. And how is Jula these days?”
“Much better,” Hairan replied. “We fear for her at first but now, she is strong again. We were fortunate so few depart, many thanks to you, Father.”
The priest made a dismissive noise and color could be seen rising in his face.
“God grants what It will, friend. We may only ever act as servants.”
Looking up toward the end of the path, Matthieu noticed that Deema was now far ahead of them, nearly to the house. He thought for a moment to catch up to her, but quickly ignored the idea, not wanting to overstep any bounds. From what he knew of this place, much of the same formality that existed between men and women in Corastia had also made its way here with the Church’s many evangelists, and so he chose to be cautious instead. He tried to listen to Girome and Hairan, but their words were lost to the wind and Matthieu’s own thoughts.
When they arrived at the little house, it was clear that Deema had rushed ahead to finish preparing their meal. A squat table sat in the center of the room laid out with bowls of soup, fried meat, and some steamed tubers. Yellow rounds of bread wrapped in leaves took up their own plate.
Hairan ushered Matthieu and Girome in first, then took his place on the ground opposite the open doorway.
“I bless our feast,” he said, as the other three gathered around the low table and seated themselves.
Hairan closed his eyes and began to sing. His voice was clear if slightly nasal, picking out an angular melody that sounded strange to Matthieu’s ears.
It was not Arcinan in his song, but an older form of Varakumi, like that used in the most dried up and forgotten homilies found in the mission library. In contrast to his halting and heavily accented speech in the crusaders’ tongue, his words now were as fluid as they were ancient. Only a few stood out to Matthieu, untrained as he was in the antiquated speech encountered by the first missionaries. Then again, perhaps only a few even in the city would be able to understand the prayer in its entirety. He could not be sure of that, only that one assumption he had made about his host on the first visit here several weeks ago had been incorrect. The last notes of the strange melody faded and he opened his eyes once more.
“Thank you,” Girome said, and Matthieu nodded in agreement.
Deema served them all and then they ate in hurried and customary silence. The pork was pleasantly delicate for being fried and the root vegetables melted in each bite. Even the bread, which he was only trying out of courtesy after having a few bad loaves in the city, was surprisingly appealing. He emptied two plates with growing discomfort, only to catch a glimpse of Hairan and Girome beginning on their third. Something urged him gently to carry on as well, but he ignored it; better to end satisfied than push himself further and mar the evening’s festivities.
While they ate and reclined afterward on the hill overlooking the bank, the sun sank lower and lower until it gave way to a wide band of stars running above them, shining even brighter behind a smiling moon. Only a few clouds remained from the light rain they had sailed through that morning. They spoke of the work; mostly, the priest told of their voyage south, with a bit concerning Lord Ocsa back in the city. Hairan seemed careful about voicing much disapproval, couching his words in praise that at least they had come when they did. Nothing more was spoken about the two he said he had lost upon their first visit.
Matthieu said only little. His time with Girome was still so brief, he told himself, compared to the years between his companions. What he did add spoke only to his brief stay in Varakuma rather than the chain of events that had sent him west, beyond the reach of torturers and lords. He preferred it that way, or at least he told himself so to mask the feeling that he was still a stranger here.
The sound of Deema calling his name pulled him from his thoughts.
“I want to show you something,” she said. “Down by the river. May I, Father?” Both Girome and Hairan turned to her, then looked to each other. The priest smiled, barely visible in the starlight.
“I will not be needing your services this evening, Matthieu. You may go.” He could not place the origin of his trepidation to follow her and so dismissed it. The way downhill was made delicate only by the nearly moonless night, but otherwise was no obstacle. Any mud left over from the morning had already dried again or else was not too slippery.
“What is it?” he asked, picking his way along the path. Deema was understandably much lighter on her more practiced feet.
“You will see. Not much farther now.” They carried on down the path nearly to the little dock, but took another way to the north instead. If Matthieu remembered correctly from his first arrival here, there was a low cliff overlooking the river up ahead. Even if there was, he could not guess what he would see there aside from the loveliness he had already taken in this night.
In the back of his mind, he counted Deema among it, though he could not say particularly why. All he knew of her had come in this day and the first, though only one truly counted much to him. He reminded himself that pity was not enough, else he should give himself so to nearly every soul he met. Perhaps that was where all such feelings should start—if not in pity, then in something close to it—but where they should end for her in his heart was a thing he could not say for certain. Perhaps one day he could.
The silver crescent moon hung low on the horizon, awash in stars that seemed to burn with the light of all the candles in the world. Step by wary step along the muddy path brought Matthieu and Deema to a rise above the river. Every so often, a startled frog darted out from under his foot, and he nearly slipped once but managed to stay upright. Deema laughed at that one, much to his chagrin. Finally, the gentle rushing of water against reeds told him that they had arrived. There was still no sign of anything strange.
“How much longer?” Matthieu asked, craning his neck to look upriver.
“Be patient,” Deema replied. He thought he could hear a grin in her voice.
The first lights appeared on the northern horizon like golden stars, flickering in much the same way but fiercer. A handful, then a dozen, then an innumerable stream flowed down the Maday.
“There,” Deema said, and Matthieu could barely make out the slim shadow of her arm pointing in the starlight back toward the edge of Yusanai along the riverbank. The tiny flames that gathered there were still yet too distant to make out any other forms on the water.
“Boats?” he asked.
“Only small ones made from grass. They light candles in the next village north of here and we set ours afloat when the first is sighted.” By now, some of them neared the cliff Matthieu sat on, their candles reflecting off the river’s languid surface. He felt himself caught between two great floods, silver above and gold below.
“What are they for?”
“The Festival of the Lighted Boats. Did Girome not tell you?”
“No,” Matthieu said, laughing. “I suppose he wanted me to be surprised.”
“Are you?” Deema laughed back at him, and Matthieu felt then that there was place in his heart for far more than only pity; far more than he could understand. The thought set his mind racing in two different directions at once, with curiosity outpacing his fear. While he knew that he may never see her again after tonight, this girl in a faraway village along a strange river in an even stranger land, that possibility too compelled him to go on.
“I am. Pleasantly, for once in a long time.” Silence fell over them for a moment as the water carried before them an endless stream of boats from river villages perhaps too numerous to count. He tried to think back to the last time he could truly rest, much less the last time he had allowed himself to enjoy something solely for its beauty without any other consideration. The mountains above Cyrnne had been beautiful if cold, not only for the eternal snow on their tops but for the knowledge that there would be no safety there.
Only a single other occasion stood out in his mind then as comparable: the night he had first washed aboard that long-lost island under its unnamed constellations arching directly overhead. He acknowledged that a portion of its glory had come with the realization that he had survived the sea, but the pain of imperfection and later leaving all of it behind still tainted his recollections. Sitting here this night, he began to fear most of all that his heart would replace Katahum’s face with Deema’s.
By now, the spots of candlelight came increasingly farther apart, though just as steadily.
Deema brought him out of his pondering.
“Are you Arcinan? You do not speak like Girome.”
“No,” he said. “But I learned it as a boy. My city is Heilicon.” Not was, he thought, and not for the first time. It was too long of a story for tonight. “In the Ossiric League. Do you know the Ellorin River?”
“Only from a map in one of my books.”
“It is about ten days’ ride east from there to where I was born.”
“And do you speak Vauish there as well?”
“Ossirian. At least, a sort of Ossirian, different but still similar. Much like if you were to speak with someone from Varakuma.” Deema thought on the comparison for a moment.
“Say something in Ossirian.”
“What would you like to hear?” She laughed again.
“Anything.” Matthieu shrugged. There were any number of things he could say, but so many of them seemed to him to be trite or silly.
“I could introduce myself first. Oj los Matthieu.”
“Then oj los Deema?” He nodded instinctively in the darkness, forgetting that she would not be able to see.
“Yes. Anything else?”
“It is very close to Arcinan. Say more and I can tell you what I understand.”
“If you insist,” he replied. “Here is a common Ossirian saying: bodes moth gartha, peses tha adtha, shodis tha thetha.” Waiting on her with impatient glee, he thought on the Arcinan students he once knew in Leganne who had stumbled over this same phrase.
“Bores mos garsa, pethes…” The words dissolved quickly into laughter. “What does it mean?”
“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.”
“Fine advice! And what do you hope for?” The question struck him unexpectedly. He hoped for many things, perhaps many more than he could not quite put into words but were only unnamed longings, and none of those would be revealed here tonight. Instead, he chuckled.
“Maybe… To learn Varakumi.”
“My father said you were quite good.”
“Your father flatters me,” he said, feeling warmth grow in his cheeks. “I have only begun.”
“Many alsinat never bother. Then again, you are not alsinat, are you?”
They turned again to the river, watching wordlessly until the last of the lingering boats had receded into the darkness of the southern horizon. Hairan’s voice called for them from up the hill and they parted for the last time that night, leaving Matthieu with the feeling of something left unsaid that could not quite become words. With Deema off sleeping elsewhere, her little house was left to her father, the priest, and Matthieu. In the moments before dreams took him, he mused on the place and the unexpectedness of it all.
He knew the two cities that had felt to him as almost equally home better than anywhere else in the world, with their towering walls and grand stone buildings. Much of that was familiar in Varakuma as well, but so much still was strange, as if he only walked in a story he had once read instead of the physical world. Could he imagine a life like Deema’s here on this hill village overlooking an impossibly wide river, where wars of faith were perhaps the only other relatable feature to what Matthieu knew from Ossiria? Even then, the central question there had not been the nature of God or gods, but of who was best suited to speak for them. He reminded himself further that if his time with both Lord Leopold and Lord Rodolf had taught him anything, it was that whatever the truth of God really was, Its children would ever search to justify their deeds by the name of God wherever possible.
Sleep came quickly after so many hours in the sun both onboard and here in the village. When he arose at the first slivers of daylight breaking through tiny gaps in the house’s wooden walls, Deema was nowhere in sight. He wanted to search for her in hopes of a proper farewell, but there was little time in the rush to gather his and Girome’s things for the return home to Varakuma. They did not wait long for another ferry.
As Yusanai faded in the distance for the second time since he had left Varakuma so many weeks ago, Matthieu could not but think that the long-promised other had finally been found. This time, he would return.