But in the face of deadly disease, Ruymir Aleyson sets out on a lethal journey across a harsh continent and an impassable ocean to discover if any truth remains to ancient legend.
“It cannot be done,” the merchant spoke in a slow, clipped voice, over-enunciating the final syllable of each word he said. “Some beasts are not meant to be tamed.”
Ruymir Aleyson leaned forward, the wood of his chair creaking as he shifted his weight. “That is not the question I asked,” he said.
“I know what you are, Master Aleyson. And you do not intimidate me,” the merchant said. “You were led here by nothing more than misguided rumor. No such map exists.”
Aleyson, moving with slow, focused deliberation, lifted the first two fingers of his right hand, then splayed both hands out upon the enormous mahogany desk that stood between him and the merchant. He stared deep into the milky paleness of the slender man’s eyes, searching the lines of his face.
“I admire your bravery,” he said. “But I really must insist.”
A slight smile tugged at the corner of Aleyson’s lips as he delivered the threat; he watched as a figure stepped out from the darkness that shrouded the man. The merchant, of course, heard and saw nothing. He even began to laugh, a laugh that turned quickly into a grimace of first discomfort, then fear, as he felt the cold kiss and death weight of steel slide against his neck.
The merchant’s face fell almost instantly back into its calm, serene lines, though his brows had narrowed slightly.
“Master Aleyson,” he said, his voice a charged whisper, his head motionless against the steel of that long, shining dagger. “Who do you think I am?”
Aleyson removed his hands from the desk and leaned back in his chair, the top half of his face falling into shadow. He crossed his arms.
“Master Faar,” he said. “Who do you think I am,” there was a sudden edge to his voice. And he must have moved, for suddenly he was on his feet and a long dagger with a curving blade appeared in the table, a mere inch to the left of Faar’s hand, but Faar had not seen Aleyson shift. He had gone from stagnancy and calm to the height of motion. The blade quivered slightly from the force with which it had been hurled into the table, and there was a thin line of blood along Faar’s neck where he had involuntarily flinched into the knife that was being held there.
Faar reached out a deliberate hand and wrapped it around the hilt of the dagger to stop its vibration.
“Enough,” he said, and his voice was sharp now. He lowered his hand to a rope beneath the table and gave a great tug. A soft bell began to ring.
“Master Faar,” Aleyson said, “No one is coming,” he paused, relishing the power of helplessness as he stared, composed and calmly cruel, into the silvery moons of the other man’s eyes. “When you come to the realization that you are alone, that this conversation was carefully planned over the course of several slow, patient years, I do hope you’ll hand over what I want.”
Faar said nothing. His mouth was a thin line, his lips turning white from the pressure.
Aleyson waited for several long moments to pass, then gestured to the woman who stood motionless behind Faar. Without any indication that she had understood the gesture, she moved. Her free hand jabbed forward, striking Faar’s lower back. At the same moment, she removed the knife from his neck, twisted his left arm around his back, kicked his chair out from under him and slammed his face into the desk.
Faar’s mouth twisted in a grimace of pain. He worked to stabilize it and eventually, his face fell into those long, serene lines, though he was panting slightly. His gray hair was tousled and draped over his head in unkempt, uneven lines. Sweat gleamed on his forehead in the dim candlelight.
“Kill me,” he gasped, “and you’ll never get what you seek.” The calm, confident control slipped from his voice, displaced by desperation.
“I have no intention of killing you,” Aleyson said. “Not yet.”
“Perhaps there is a more civilized way to do this,” Faar said, his voice partially muffled by the wood of the desk.
“Master Faar, we tried to be civil before. It did not work. If you’d like to try it again, I must insist that you will be more cooperative.”
“Yes, yes,” he said.
Aleyson’s companion brought Faar off the table and to his feet. The merchant stretched his neck and rubbed his shoulder, pushing his hair back into place with several delicate strokes of his nimble fingers. Faar returned to his ornate chair and steepled his fingers. The frightened, desperate old man seemed to vanish entirely, almost as though it had been some sort of illusion.
“There are several things I must tell you before you can retrieve it,” Faar said.
Aleyson said nothing. His companion returned to the shadows.
“There is very little that is assumed about a land beyond this continent,” Faar said. “Several centuries ago, Emperor Eldritch commissioned a sum of three dozen voyages that ventured west in search of this mythological landmass; from shipwrecks and guesswork and a single surviving sailor, his cartographers were able to piece together the item you seek: a scroll outlining the progress of this fleet. It is an incomplete object, and the reality of its destination is more than in doubt.”
“I know this already,” Aleyson said.
“The map,” Faar raised his voice slightly, “was never in my possession, though I know where it lies. The price of my knowledge is thus: three thousand silver pieces and an answer to one question. Why do you want it?”
Aleyson glared at him for a long moment. “You ask a high price,” he said.
“The silver is to compensate me for the deaths of my guards,” Faar said. “The question is to ensure your worth to possess the object.”
“You are, to the knowledge of any who have passed through the Slokor District, a simple businessman,” Aleyson said. “Why do you care to what purpose this likely useless object is put?”
“Because, Master Aleyson, there is a chance, however slim, that this map represents our salvation. There is something out there that is greater than this, greater than us, and meanwhile, the threats from without and within on this land are doubling by the day.
“Yes, I am a simple businessman. I do everything I can to increase my wealth so I can increase my influence, power, and comfort. It is a hard world for those who lack, and I vowed long ago never to lack. But there are some things that are simply more important. This is one of those things. Vows have been made; blood oaths sworn. I will die before I divulge the information unless I deem your payment fitting.”
Silence billowed between the two men. A smile began to curl Faar’s thin lips. It had not been difficult to regain control of this tenuous situation.
“I assume I have left you much to think about,” Faar said. “If you decide to pay this price, you will meet me at midnight tomorrow with the full amount of silver in the alley behind this building. For now, though, I think you can leave me in peace.”
Aleyson stared at him hard for a moment, then nodded slightly to the shadows and rose to his feet, making his way to the door. He slipped out into the street, momentarily startled by the rushing, overwhelming blast of sights and sounds and smells that the building’s thick stone walls had blocked out.
The sun was beating heavily onto the cobbled streets, and he could feel sweat already beginning to form beneath his toned, dark arms and knees and on the back of his neck. Around him whirled a swarm of people; ragged children dressed in dirt, oblivious and uncaring of the pain of the world around them as they dodged over-attentive mothers and raced through the streets; hundreds of merchants selling a variety of wares; the sound and smell of food cooking over hundreds of little firepits up and down the many streets that made up the city; the sheer human rush and press, that intoxicating, overwhelming notion of being close to millions of humans. Scarred, unkempt dogs and cats trotted between legs, and every few minutes, the seething mass of people would divide, and the road would momentarily clear to allow a troop of armed men and women to march past, undisturbed.
Above the clamor and roar of the crowd, dozens of discordant voices rose in song, some accompanied by strangely shaped string instruments or animal skin drums. And, despite the pain and poverty that seemed to emulate from the very walls, despite the rotting corpses that swayed in their perches above the gates and along the walls, the voices sang of joy and of hope, and his strange attachment to this evil place swelled in his chest.
Aleyson took a deep breath, expanding his chest with the smoke and ash and heat and love and pain of this terrible, wonderful place, then spun on his heel and began pushing his way through the crowd. People largely melted away before him, but it was still slow-going. He walked with confidence in his step regardless; to show weakness would be a critical misstep in this place. It would invite attack.
After nearly an hour, his clothing limp with sweat, he arrived at his destination; a long, narrow alley shaded in shadow and devoid of a single human presence. He rested there for a moment, then reached above his head and began to crawl up the side of the alley. His calloused hands and fingers hardly registered the tugging and scraping of the stones; he had made this climb so many times that his muscles hardly seemed to protest the constant pulling. In a journey that was significantly easier than that which he had made through the streets, he arrived on the sloping roof of a five-story building, a familiar haunt from his childhood.
He slipped out of his long overcoat and sat on the roof, staring out at the thriving, wild, cruel city laid out before him, allowing the rush and roar of the sound emanating from the place to wash over and around him, finding a kind of peace in the buzzing of the chaos.
“So,” Aleyson said, feeling a presence somewhere to his right, though he kept his eyes forward. “What do you think?”
A slight breeze rustled across the pair of them, embracing them in its cooling warmth. Aleyson covered her hand with his own; he rubbed his thumb against her palm in an unconscious, reflexive reminder of intimacy.
There was a slight rustling of cloth. “I think his response is the best we could have hoped for.”
“Is it worth the expense, though?”
“In coins, or in words?”
Aleyson laughed. “Either.”
Ayrika sat down beside him and laid a small hand on his knee. He closed his eyes at the touch and turned to look into her face; her skin was very slightly lighter than his, and her eyes were wide and dark and somehow displayed a kind of innocence. He could see the laugh lines around her mouth, between the scattering of pink and white scars that would never vanish. Her hair was short and wavy and dark, and it flowed over the tattered tip of her left ear. She was a hunter and a killer and was cold and callous more often than not. But she belonged to that slim cadre of people who, when they find someone to care about, they care with every fiber of their being.
“It’s like Faar said. This map represents the possibility of hope. We haven’t had that in a long time.”
“It also represents a beginning, and an ending,” Aleyson involuntarily clenched his left fist, twisting his wrist in a tight circle. “Things are not so bad the way they are now. And if we pursue this, they could get a lot worse.”
“She will die if we do nothing. The only hope she might have is at the other end of the world — ”
“According to legend,” Aleyson said quickly.
“Yes, according to legend. But there is a small bit of truth to every myth, and if we do nothing at all, she will die anyway. At least, if we go through with this, you will have tried. If you don’t, I don’t think you will ever forgive yourself.”
Aleyson was silent for several long moments. He turned back to stare into the depths of the city.
“And in any case,” Ayrika said, “the only thing here that is worth going back to is sitting next to me. This place does not hold my heart, and it does not hold yours, either.”
Aleyson smiled, a slight uplifting of his lips that kept his teeth hidden but was genuine all the same. His left cheek bent into a dimple, and his eyes took on a lighter shade.
“If we do this, there is no turning back.”
“Life is met and lived by moving forward,” she whispered, “never by turning back.”
“Ayrika,” he said, and the name on his lips gave a certain warmth to his heart, “I’m scared.”
There was almost something comical about the confession; Ruymir Aleyson did not look like the kind of man who experienced something as mundane and human as fear. He was slightly above average height and boasted a shining, completely bald head. His body was laced with lean, powerful muscle; his hands were large and his fingers long; his jaw was sharp behind the narrow beard he wore and his lips were often set in a thin line beneath dark, forbidding eyes. It was the mask of a cruel man, quick to anger and prone to violence. It was a mask Aleyson had spent years carefully sculpting; to inspire fear in a stranger is to live in safety. And everything from his posture to his facial expressions worked to influence that persona.
“Not for me,” he added. “For a long time now, the only care I have given to my own life is as it relates to yours. I’m terrified that something will happen to you,” he looked away. “And I hate myself for it because it is a selfish fear — it is the fear of a life without you in it. And that is a prospect I can’t face. Stagnancy may not be growth, but it is not loss, either,” he turned back and met her eyes, and his stomach fell, and his chest burned with longing. “If I gain anything on this journey, but lose you, it wouldn’t be worthwhile. I can’t,” he paused and looked away, cracking his neck and clenching his teeth. He turned and found her eyes again. “I won’t lose you.”
She reached out with her two hands and wrapped them around his forearm and palm, gently but firmly stilling the nervous tick that was so violently twisting his hand.
“Stop doing that,” she said, turning her face up and staring into his eyes with a kind of raw force that would have made most men turn away. Aleyson returned the gaze the way the thirsty stare upon water.
“We have ridden to war, and we have come back,” she said. “We have fought dozens of battles in dozens of places, each messier than the last. Life has beat at us and we have suffered, but we have survived. We’ve always made it through together; here, again, we will be together, and so it’ll be okay,” she lifted her right hand and lightly pressed her fingers to his cheek. “I promised you a long time ago that I wasn’t going anywhere. I’m not. And if it is my time — ”
Aleyson shifted uncomfortably, looked pointedly away. He cracked his wrist again. She pulled his face back around, forced him to find her eyes.
“I am not afraid of death, Roo,” she breathed, and then, with more purposeful emphasis than before, “if it is my time, I will still be with you. In your heart and in your mind, in the way you think and the way you speak, in the love you crave, and in the care you give. Death cannot me from you, and it cannot take you from me.”
He took a deep breath, then reached out his long arms and pulled her against him, feeling her curls press against his chin, feeling her muscles shift beneath the texture of her cloak as he rubbed his thumb in circles across her back. He felt his chest burn and lift as her hands wrapped around his waist and found their way up his back, and he relished the moment, closing his eyes against the world that didn’t matter, the world that was nothing, the world that meant nothing, the world that existed outside of and beyond her, and so didn’t really exist at all.
He bent his chin slightly so that his mouth was right next to her ear.
“I owe you one more normal, happy night before whatever this is begins,” he murmured, his voice husky and almost strained.
“If you’re offering an adventure,” she said, her voice muffled by his shirt, “you know I can’t refuse.”
He smiled again into her hair, hidden and shadowed from the world, and, before standing up and pulling apart from her, worked to fight the burning emotion that was beginning to spark in the corners of his eyes. He took a deep breath and pulled away from her, and then he looked at her for several breaths, terror mixing with contentment in the recesses of his soul. He pushed himself to his feet, ignoring the sharp crack in his knees as his legs extended, then shrugged his overcoat back over his shoulders, violently twisting his wrist as he did so.
The sun was falling, and, to the west, the sky was on fire; to the east, the merest suggestion of stars were beginning to ignite, scattered around the slightest crescent outline of the moon.
Slipping in and out of shadow, the pair made their way back into the alley and down several long, crooked blocks, dipping in and out of complete invisibility as the sun fell lower and the sky grew darker. They traveled from narrow back alley to narrower back alley, and at length, they came to a wide circular grate set low in an ancient wall.
Aleyson slipped an old iron key into a hidden slot, then pushed the grate in, stepping into a tunnel that had once served as the city’s first sewer system. It had not been in use for years, although the place still reeked, and a fine line of dark water still ran down the center of the tunnel.
They wandered down further into the darkness, going more by feel than sight until Aleyson found what he was looking for; a hole set off to the side, covered by a wide wooden plank. He heaved the plank aside and found the top of a long, rusted ladder and began to climb down, followed by Ayrika. He landed at the bottom some forty rungs down with a slight splash, feeling a chill in the air. He heard the rustling of some unnamed creatures and critters and his hand fell to the hilt of his sword for a moment before he reminded himself that he would have a hard time dueling a rat in the daylight, let alone in the pitch black. He almost found himself wishing for a torch, but he knew it would attract unwanted attention, and, in any case, he knew the tunnels well enough that light was not necessary.
Ayrika found his hand in the darkness, and they walked on for more than an hour until the tunnel began to heat up, and the moisture that lined the bottom began to dry as the tunnel sloped upward. A soft light came into being, and, speeding up, they arrived at a grate similar to the one which they had entered. Aleyson once again slipped his key into a hidden slot and twisted the grate open, climbing out first so as to help Ayrika climb through, though she did not need it. Pushing aside a thick curtain of ivy that thoroughly disguised the grate, and then climbing and shoving through a thick growth of vines and bushes and trees, they came to a clearing set on a low hill and surrounded by lush, green trees. Crickets played their symphonies to the stars; a small stream gurgled over wide, flat river stones and, at the very center of the clearing, an old, fallen tree trunk served as a seat, absorbing the spotlight of the moon.
Aleyson gestured to the trunk with his left hand and smiled broadly at the giggle that had escaped her normally hard persona. He sat beside her and slung the bag onto the ground, pulling out a wicker basket that he had packed with bread and cheese and honey wine. He placed the basket on the grass and opened it, inviting her to start the feast with a gesture, then he reached back into the bag and produced a strangely shaped object wrapped in a leather case.
“Are you going to serenade me, tonight,” she said, her eyes, even wider than usual, sparkled in the moonlight. The shadowy assassin who had threatened to kill a man mere hours before might never have existed.
He nodded, a very slight smile curling only one corner of his mouth.
He opened the case and produced a mandolin that had been carved of gleaming redwood; it had a wonderful cherry tint to it that was highlighted in the moonlight. He rested the instrument on his knees and plucked at the strings experimentally, adjusting the tuning pegs.
He strummed a chord, and, satisfied, leaned back. He cleared his throat and began to play a simple melody, his large hands dwarfing the small instrument, but working with a surprising level of gentle dexterity and obvious passion. He played through several bars before he began to sing softly; his voice was deep and textured; he was no bard, but his was far from an unpleasant voice.
And he sang her a song, in a language few still remembered, and it was a song of love and of devotion and of forever, because loss, that ugly, twisted, common thing, played no role in his heart and his mind. And the birds and the beasts, and the wind and the stream, seemed to murmur soft harmonies, as though nature herself agreed with the words that fell off his lips.
A light breeze rustled the trees around them, and the sound was of gentle rain.
And as a smile played at her lips beneath the joy that was written in her storied, partially-vacant eyes, the wolves that had circled the clearing, hungry and salivating, turned tail and stalked away, for there is a magic in music that no sorcerer can capture and which no man can understand, and that night, his song touched souls, even if they didn’t quite have the capacity to understand why.