I’d fought so hard for so long to help keep the Kingdom together that I’d lost sight of why I was doing it. Now that the Kingdom did finally appear back together again, or at least more than it had been, after having come so close to falling apart, I wasn’t quite sure what to do or how to react. I knew I was happy about it but I didn’t any longer remember why.
Our problems weren’t solved. Some people still starved, some people still set fires, but things just felt different now. The fires, the riots, the starving people…It no longer felt like the new reality, it didn’t feel normal anymore. It seemed somehow to be understood that things would get better. Things didn’t feel stuck.
Things would get better. And what made me think that most was the fact that others seemed to think it. I knew it wasn’t just me.
Things were better, but, still something was wrong . . . It was like we’d gone too far back. I could see the remnants of the old ways creeping back in, where blood mattered above all. Lord Kendal’s world. Better-run to be sure but Lord Kendal’s world never-the-less.
“Is it true, Galen,” someone in Yew had asked me. I didn’t know his name or who he was. I could tell he wasn’t a monk and wasn’t a noble, but that was all I could tell about him.
“Is what true.”
“What they say about Jhelom and Skara.” This was long after Gideon’s death so it had to be the more-recent stuff he was asking about. The kidnappings.
Yes and no, I thought. But I knew I couldn’t respond that way. The people need definite answers, especially now. Nuance had its place. This wasn’t it, and I knew it wasn’t.
“No. Just a bad bunch in Skara, pretending to be from Jhelom to confuse people.” Not wrong. Not complete, but not wrong.
“That’s good. Any idea who the bunch is yet?”
“No, not yet.”
“Well you keep the lookout, Marshal.”
I didn’t know which was stranger, that we’d degenerated so far that a bad bunch in one of the major cities was considered an improvement, or that I was expected to deal with something I couldn’t help much with (though I guess that much wasn’t nothing new), or that I was actually being asked about another city and the conversation was friendly. It’d been awhile since I was asked about Skara or Jhelom in Yew without the gist of the conversation being what kind of a traitor was I for wanting to help either of those places.
Indeed, it wasn’t that long ago I wasn’t well-liked in Yew. After I’d helped Mayor Willa and Martyna fight off some raiders there but then gone to someplace else, Britain I think, to do the same thing there, the people of Yew turned against me awfully fast. Now they weren’t just talking to me again, they were asking me about other places. Definitely better, I thought. Definitely better.
During the troubles, during the disunity, it’d seemed important that, as Grand Marshal, I helped everyplace I could. I knew there’d be some issues with that during the troubles. I was willing to take the hit and, by God, did I take the hit. Depending on the day, everyone hated me. You were with “us” or you were against “us,” and the “us” always changed depending on where you were.
But now, finally, the people no longer saw it as a betrayal when I divided up my time. We were a nation again, or at least we were headed in that direction.
Going back. Had we really gone back? Was the disunity still there? Or maybe we’d actually gone a little too far back for my tastes.
The opulent splendor of King Blackthorn’s Castle I found disturbing even though I knew no government money was spent on it. It was just too much. There was now this rather large gap between how the King lived, and how the people lived. The world where your blood mattered above all was definitely back. Even how Blackthorn had made it legal for us to kill Lord Kendal, the Bill of Attainder, was very old world, very feudal. Nobles allowing the rest of us to act against one of our own.
But I told myself at least there was a King. At least that King recognized that something had to be done and let us do it; the Bill of Attainder in effect had legalized the High Council’s warrant. Better than nothing to be sure. A lot better. But still it smacked of a world that I’d liked to think had passed. I remembered how, long ago, when this all began, I’d suggested we might be going backward. In a roundabout way, I worried, I’d been proven right.
There’d been an old Minoc/Highland folk song called “For Auld Lang Syne,” basically meaning “For the Sake of the Old Times,” that had been in my mind since this all began. Since the High Council shared a drink at the Cat’s Lair Tavern in Britain literally the night before things started to really fall apart. Not unlike another old human folk song called “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” “For Auld Lang Syne” was about continuity and change, about going forward and backwards. About how sometimes you could go back, and sometimes you couldn’t.
”We twa hae paidl’d i' the burn, frae' mornin' sun till dine! But seas between us braid hae roar’d sin auld lang syne.”
Sometimes you could go back and sometimes you couldn’t. Sometimes the seas of time between us are just too different to go paddling in the burn, the stream, together anymore, no matter how much we wanted to.
Was it like that for the Kingdom? Had we been apart for too long to really be together again, to really go back? To re-unify did we have to go so far back, to the days of peasants and vassals and petty squabbles and Feudalism, that there was no point in re-unifying to start with?
Time would tell.
After I left Yew I went to Moonglow. It was early morning, and for once I was in Yew and didn’t go by Queen Dawn’s grave. I didn’t feel like seeing death. At least not for a couple of hours. The world owed me a couple of hours, and my mistress, Aranel, was the sight I wanted to see. Not death.
Aranel was waiting for me at a room in one of the inns in Moonglow.
“You’re late!” she playfully chastised.
“You’d be easier to take seriously if you were wearing something other than a sheet,” I playfully chastised right back. She was in bed, indeed covered only by a sheet and, at the moment, that seemed too much to me.
“Oh! Well I can arrange that, love. I could take this sheet right off and slip my armor on and Corp Por you before you so much as caught a glimpse of me undressed.”
I knew she was right. I smiled at her, and undressed, and got in the bed with her. Our hands found each other under the sheet, and we made love until mid-morning.
“We were meeting for breakfast,” she whispered. “It’ll be lunchtime soon.”
We lay there, our bodies intertwined, for a long time. “Is it really getting better out there,” she asked. “Or am I just imagining it.” We were whispering; I’m not sure why. Aranel basically lived her life in the shadows; in that respect being a mistress suited her. So maybe that was why we so-often whispered to one another. It wasn’t at all like Joylah, and the way I loved them both equally, though they were nothing alike, never stopped surprising me a little.
“You’re not imagining it. We’ve got miles to go, but things are getting better for sure.”
“I can tell because people don’t keep stopping me to ask why you’re at other places besides Moonglow. I don’t have to keep telling them that other people need you too. Virtues it boiled my blood to hear that. Like helping other people was betraying them somehow.”
Aranel and I had lunch in Moonglow. Then I did a long patrol. Everyone was right, the mood was different. We felt like one nation once again, if nothing else. Or did we?
There were some exceptions, some problems. Neptune’s falling for the villains’ trick and blaming Jhelom for the crimes in his city –and I was entirely confident that a group of villains’ trick was all it was—didn’t help.
From unity, to division, to what?
I met my son John and his lover, Tanda the Justicar of the High Court, for dinner in Minoc later that night. No haggis, thank God. I was once told that what was in Minoc sausage wasn’t all that different from what was in haggis, but I’d take the chance. At least with the sausage I didn’t know for sure.
As we talked I noted how much John had taken on Tanda’s Minocian “Highland” accent, but it was a lot different from Tanda’s. Different in a way I didn’t quite know how to put words to.
The three of us talked for a long time, watching the dinner crowd at the Barnacle tavern come and go. It hurt knowing that Tanda’s ghost still haunted her, still constantly attempted to distract her by whispering and singing in her ear whenever she was someplace other than my house, under the protection of Joylah’s wards. But I knew it was important to Tanda to be out and about, to defy her haunting. She touched John in public as often and in as many places as polite society allowed, and probably a little more than, taunting the spirit that haunted her.
Not tonight, though. Tonight they were reserved. We talked about the dark riders that hadn’t been seen for awhile. We talked about Skara and Jhelom. We talked about the latest news and gossip in Minoc. We talked about Minoc’s strange Mayor, who’d sworn fealty to Blackthorn perhaps a little too quickly to be trusted entirely. We talked about Vesper. We talked about their future together.
Eventually I left them. I could tell from how they looked at each other that they wouldn’t be home for awhile. He would take her outside someplace tonight, surrounded by the crisp Highland air she loved to breathe.
There was a singer in The Barnacle that night. Ironically he was singing “Auld Lang Syne.” “For auld lang syne, my dear. For auld lang syne! We’ll ‘tak a cup, ‘o kindness yet, for auld lang syne . . . “ A drink for the sake of the old times.
I walked after I left. I was going to say I patrolled, but that ain’t the truth. I walked and I rode and I picked up garbage and I talked to people, and I thought.
I lost track of time and it was dark when I came home. Joylah was in our bedroom.
“Sorry I’m late.”
“You better be, Ohtar,” she giggled. “I’ve been waiting up for hours!” The fact that I’d found her in bed and asleep and not at all awake and looked like she’d been asleep for hours notwithstanding.
I sat beside her, stroked her hair and shoulders with my gloved hand. “What’s this?” There was a rose on my pillow, next to her head. A very red rose, with very sharp thorns.
“That is a lesson. A witch’s lesson to her husband.”
“I see. And what’s the lesson.”
“How does your Bible put it….” My holy book. “Something like there is a purpose for all, even the wicked for the day of judgment. That rose isn’t just the petals. It’s the thorns too. All have their purpose; rose and thorns. And both are beautiful.” She’d been saying things like this a lot lately. Preparing me, I think, for what the reality of King Blackthorn’s reign might be like once the glow wore off, as it inevitably would.
“You could’ve just opened my Bible and read that to me, melamin.”
“Not as much fun as what I have in mind.”
She handed me the rose, thorns first, and carefully lowered the sheet, exposing her breasts, and clasped her hands behind her head.
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