By winter’s end, the field of rubble had become famous. The new councilors of Shaftal had begun to arrive in Watfield from far and near, and all came to view the remains of the destroyed wall. Seth went there as soon as she and her Paladin companion entered the city, even before they sought a place to lay down their heavy packs and thaw their frozen fingers.
The massive wall had surrounded Watfield garrison. Now the stones lay in a swath through the city. Seth squatted down, took off her gloves, and with numb fingers broke a small stone loose from its icy mortar. She set it atop a much larger one, the surface of which had been flattened by the stone mason’s chisel. The small stone shuddered sideways off its wide base, to impinge upon another, which cracked free from the ice that pinned it down, and rolled away. Now, that stone touched two others, which also hitched themselves sideways. The chain reaction quickly spread, from a few stones to many, until noisy waves of movement rippled ponderously in both directions, between the buildings, out of sight.
Seth had stood up to watch. She felt cold air on her teeth and realized she was gaping. Everyone spoke of this wonder—but she had not truly believed it.
“You’d better put your gloves back on,” the Paladin said.
It seemed impossible Seth could still be in her familiar world. Yet she pulled on her gloves, which like her hat and jerkin were tightly knit of unwashed, undyed wool. The grease that repelled snow and rain from her hat and gloves still smelled like dirty sheep, and the busy city continued to clatter, shout, slam, ring, and rattle even as the crack and thud of the supernatural stones faded into the distance. Seth said, “The wall can’t be rebuilt. These stones will always refuse to remain one on top of the other—to even touch each other.”
The Paladin, as pragmatic as Seth but even less talkative, shuffled her feet, as if to remind Seth how cold they were and how welcome a hot meal would be. “The G’deon lives in the city center, in a house called Travesty.” She gestured towards a busy artisan’s district, where an oversized shoe advertised a cobbler’s shop, a normal-sized wheel the wheelwright’s, and a gigantic needle and thread the tailor’s. Seth felt offended by the asymmetry of these displays.
“You go,” she said to the Paladin. “I’ll find my own way.”
They parted ways, in the manner of strangers thrown together, who had never become friends. Alone now, Seth walked along the edge of the rubble, following the mostly obscured road that once had abutted the garrison wall. On the opposite side of the restless debris stood what once had been an orderly group of garrison buildings. Some were fire-scarred, and others were heaps of charred beams and wrecked furniture. Many were being rebuilt. She could hear the carpenters chanting breathlessly as they pulled on the ropes that lifted a center beam. The banging of hammers punctuated the racket of the city. Roofers swarmed over the top of one building, shouting cheerful curses at each other. At another, the carpenters were hanging clapboards as fast as they could drive in the nails. Some of them wore soldier’s gray, but most of them wore Shaftali longshirts, several layers, so they could take them off and put them on again depending on how cold the day became and how vigorously they worked.
The main gate lay flat on its face, embedded in dirty ice. There, two soldiers were gathering stone blocks that had begun to clutter the passage. In their wheelbarrow, the stones banged the wooden sides as they struggled to get away from each other, but the soldiers seemed accustomed to this extraordinary behavior.
The woman soldier looked up as Seth began picking her way through the passage. “Carefulness,” she advised. “Rocks move much.”
The man soldier had stopped his work to watch a grinding wave of movement he had inadvertently instigated in the field of stones. His wave encountered another coming from the other direction, and there was a brief confusion. A raven that had been perched on one of the stones flew up in startlement. The waves separated and continued on, and more rocks rolled into the passageway he had just cleared. The soldier rolled his eyes comically. The raven landed nearby and began preening its flight feathers.
“I would like to speak to the general,” said Seth. “Is that possible?”
“The general is in quarters,” said the man soldier. “Will I—I will show you the way.”
Seth followed the soldier in dumb surprise, feeling as if a door she’d expected to stick had swung easily open, without even a squeak of the hinges. The soldier said, “I am Damon. You have traveled far?”
“I’m Seth, a Basdown cow doctor. Now I’m a councilor.”
The soldier said, “A councilor? Your mission will be difficult. I follow orders only—easier, eh?” He gestured meaningfully at the sky.
Puzzled, Seth looked up. The raven she had noticed at the gate now floated overhead. Why did this soldier find the bird significant? She said, “Is that a G’deon’s raven?”
“That one has not talked today, so I am not certain. Still, I have been polite to it.” He grinned.
When Seth first realized Clement was a soldier, the woman’s darkness of spirit, her bouts of formality, and even her ravening hunger had made sense to Seth. But this soldier’s friendliness and humor were as surprising as the supernatural raven. Fortunately, the sound of hammers and saws rose around them in such a din that Seth could not have answered the soldier had she been able to think of something to say.
On both sides, new buildings rose up out of ashes and charred debris. Seth had entered the region of reconstruction.
Damon led Seth into a smoke-stained building, down a hall that was being swept by an old, one-legged woman in a ragged old uniform, to a nondescript door that stood ajar. He called out in the soldier’s language and received a brisk answer from within.
“We wait,” he explained to Seth.
Looking over his shoulder, she could see only a coat tree on which hung a much-worn, felt-lined leather coat, and part of a homely laundry line, hung with woolen stockings and...diapers? She shifted sideways, and now she could see a large window with its grimy upper panes unshuttered to let in dim light from the rapidly darkening sky. Beneath the window, at a scarred table surrounded by battered chairs and piled with dirty dishes and waxed-leather envelopes, sat the ugliest man Seth had ever seen, reading aloud from a stiff sheet of paper.
She shifted sideways again, and now her heart gave a hard thump. Clement sat across the table from the ugly man. She appeared to be listening to him read, while also reading another document to herself as her leg moved rhythmically in a motion familiar to everyone in Shaftal who’d ever looked after an infant: the Sainnite General was rocking a cradle. Seth heard the unseen baby uttered a small, happy yelp and Clement glanced downward, smiling, with all the joy and pain of a new parent’s exhausted adoration. Then she yawned prodigiously, rubbed her eyes, and said to the ugly man, “That can’t be what it says. It has too many letters!”
He murmured something, and she replied, “No, once was enough! Who wrote that drivel?”
The ugly man grinned. “Mackapee.”
“Mackapee, the first G’deon? Hell!”
“Drivel it may be, but don’t say so in public.”
“What would they do to me?” Clement muttered. “How could they punish me more than I’ve already been punished?” She pointed at the page Gilly had been reading. “What is that word again?”
“Humble. ’Humble acts of kindness...’”
“’...Are like glue in the furniture of our community.’” She read the words haltingly. This was a reading lesson, Seth finally realized. Clement could read in the soldier’s language, but not in the language of Shaftal.
“Excellent!” said the ugly man.
“Drivel. And it’s got too many letters.”
Clement turned her attention to another document. The ugly man recalled the waiting soldier. “Yes, Damon?”
The soldier said in Shaftalese, “I have brought a councilor of Shaftal who wants to speak with General Clement.”
Clement uttered a sigh, set down her document, and stood up to face the door. Her mouth parted, preparing a polite if exasperated greeting. She said nothing. She stared at Seth, flabbergasted.
Seth pushed self-consciously at the wisps of sticky, roughly cut hair that were escaping from under her knit cap. What could she say, after all, to explain her presence? I could not stay away? Something between us must be finished? She too, said nothing at all.
The ugly man leapt up, crossing the room, speaking in the soldier’s language to Damon, then switching languages to speak to Seth. “Greetings, councilor. I’m the General’s secretary, Gilly. Let me take your bag.” He took her knapsack and snowshoes from her shoulder, showed her to the fireplace, exclaimed in dismay to find the fire nearly burnt out, and launched a discussion of the weather as he took tinder from the woodbox.
Clement said, “Go away, Gilly.”
The ugly man abandoned his project, stepped into the hall, and shut the door behind him. The silence made Seth’s ears feel empty. Clement went to the fireplace to fuss with tinder and puff a breath of air onto the coals. A cloud of ashes lifted.
One of them must speak! Seth cleared her throat. “Everyone says it’s been a marvelous winter.”
“It’s been a winter of marvels, anyway.” Clement sat back on her heels, rubbing her smoke- or weariness-reddened eyes.
“For you certainly! ...and I—I marveled at the tale of the Sainnite General who climbed the rubble of the fallen wall and offered her hand to the G’deon of Shaftal.”
Clement glanced up at her, and replied with heavy irony, “I was all Sainnites, and Karis was all Shaftali, and the wall was all obstacles to peace. So Emil says. Though at the time the true marvel was that I didn’t fall down on my face out of terror.”
“Emil? The head of the council? That Emil?”
“There’s only one Emil,” said Clement. “Praise the gods.”
“And now, Clem—do you continue to be all Sainnites? Or are you, sometimes, yourself only?”
Clement uttered a sharp explosion of breath, like a laugh or a choke. Light flickered in the cinders and a flame flared up, reaching hungrily for the tinder. Her shoulders strained the coarse wool cloth as she stood up from the hearth. “ Do I look like a symbol?” Her uniform buttons shimmered in the hot light; leather straps buckled across her breast. Her hands, bony and chilblained, smoothed the rumpled wool of her trousers.
Seth said, “You look important, anyway.”
The general stepped close to her. Seth felt the warmth, the pull of her, and held still with great effort. Clem laid a hand on her shoulder, and hesitated—afraid? And then she leaned forward and touched Seth’s wind-cracked lips with hers, quite shyly, then intently, then with a moan that vibrated on Seth’s hands, which had risen of their own will to take hold of the buttons and buckles that bound Clem in this rigid disguise. Seth noticed them in time to prevent them from importunately removing the general’s clothes.
“So are you here to see if I am still here?” Clem’s breath tickled Seth’s mouth. “What can I do—what will it take—to keep you from leaving?”
The skin of her face was overlaid with a fine grain of wrinkles. Her eyes, brown like Seth’s, were shadowed by blue underneath, like shadows on snow. Seth’s hand, still pressed against gray wool, felt the woman’s thudding heart. She said, “Just give me a small thing: my skin upon yours.”
Seth felt Clem’s breath shake itself out of her. She said, “My room upstairs—it’s cluttered with my son’s things. The blankets haven’t been aired since autumn. The shutters are open, to let in the light for the flowers, and it’s bitter cold, certainly. The lamp has no oil—the woodbox is empty—“
“What can’t be fixed we will ignore.”
“—And we’ll be interrupted.”
“If I post a guard—
“You can only have privacy by sacrificing it?”
“I am in charge of several thousand terrified soldiers.”
Those soldiers were not in charge of themselves? Were they children? Jolted again, Seth drew back.
The door cracked open and a voice said, “General?”
“Gods of hell, Gilly, leave me alone!”
“I did intend to. But a note just arrived from Travesty.”
“Cow dung!” Seth muttered. Clement stepped away. Seth jammed her misbehaving hands into her pockets, and glared into the fireplace. The flare of new flame had burned out.
At the door, Clement and her secretary argued in Sainnese. The tone of their conversation changed so swiftly from dismay to sarcasm to mockery that Seth could not imagine the topic. The baby chortled sleepily, like a bird at sunset. Clem had not been pregnant, last time—Seth would have noticed that! This was not a son of the body, then—of course not; women soldiers never bore children.
Seth had congratulated herself for finding it irrelevant that Clem was Sainnite. But in fact she had not been thinking of her as Sainnite at all; she had been thinking of her as a Shaftali in a soldier’s uniform, as though the clothing were wearing her. And Seth might wish it were true—she might wish it with vigor for the rest of her life—but all that wishing would make no difference. The uniform was Clement; Clement was Clem; and Seth must know her entirely if she was to know her at all.
The door closed, with Gilly again exiled to the hall. Clement approached Seth with an unfolded note in her hand, and showed it to her. “Please visit me,” was scrawled on it in pencil, in big, awkward letters.
Clement looked down, seeming very interested in the toes of her boots. “The Council of Shaftal meets in four days. My thirteen garrison commanders could arrive as early as tomorrow, and their quarters aren’t even built yet. But the G’deon has summoned me, and I must go.”
“I should go there also, I suppose,” said Seth distractedly.
“Gilly reminded me that if you have no kin in Watfield, you’ll be residing in Travesty.”
“I have no kinfolk here.”
“The people who live in Travesty are always complaining that none of the chimneys draw properly and the floors are all crooked. But it’s a massive building. You’ll certainly have a room to yourself.”
Seth took a hopeful breath—and then she was jolted again, and appalled. “How could anyone’s timing have been so perfect? Tell me I have not been following a path without thinking! Like a cow!”
Clement looked up from studying her boots. A wry smile had reshaped her face. “There was a raven—am I right? A raven watching for you to arrive?”
“There was, but—I am no-one to the G’deon! Why would she watch for me?”
“Her seer probably dreamed of you.”
Seth stared at Clement. Clement in turn observed Seth assessingly, seeming remotely curious to see what she would do now.
“Then she’s subtle, for an earth witch,” Seth finally said.
“Oh yes, subtle as a bull in bracken!”
Seth was so surprised to hear this Basdown saying—uttered with a Basdowner’s dripping sarcasm—that she laughed out loud.
But Clement said, “Go home, Seth.”
Yes, Seth thought, I certainly should—if I expect to ever go home at all. But beneath the jolts and surprises and clamoring confusion of the last few moments, her certainty remained certain as ever. She said, “I gather that your life is intolerable. And you think those intolerable conditions will be mine too, and perhaps you think that is already happening. But you don’t know me, just as I don’t know you. So here’s a lesson: I cannot be discouraged—if you don’t believe me, ask my mother! And don’t tell me what to do, either.”
Clement looked at her a long time. At last she said, very quiet and amazed, “You have a mother?”
A dead general’s lieutenant serves as general for only four months. Then the commanders gather to choose a new general for life. Because Cadmar died in dead of winter, during two of Clement’s four months the only communications with the garrisons had been written. Now all fourteen commanders would soon arrive in Watfield, and Clement would need to convince them that without her as general, the Sainnites would not survive.
Clement could strategize, give orders, obey orders, and argue against plans she thought inadequate. But she did not know how to convince a group of people, whose hostility to her decisions had certainly hardened to intransigence, to choose her.
How do people choose? How—why—had Seth chosen to come to her again? She could not explain it.
Clement had gathered some things for the baby, put on her coat, and left for Travesty. Now, the cow farmer walked sturdily beside her, snowshoes dangling from her knapsack, her legs wrapped in grimy oiled leather, her cheeks chapped and red from facing the bitter Shaftal wind. They walked side-by-side through the garrison. As always when Clement went out, soldiers continually approached to talk to her.
“Good day, General. I am happy to report that your new uniform will be finished today.”
“General Clement, have you heard that we’re running low on fodder for the horses?”
“A fine day, eh General?” This was said sarcastically after sleet had begun to pelt Shaftali and Sainnite indiscriminately.
“General! What’s going to become of us?” An old one-eyed veteran, whose duties involved much scattering of sand in winter and sweeping it up in summer, limped out of a sheltered doorway. As Clement stopped to talk with him, he gently stroked Gabian’s downy head, which poked out the front of her leather coat. Gabian talked to him also, though the baby’s comments weren’t entirely sensible.
Now a Shaftali carpenter trotted over to tell Clement that the building they were passing could be occupied tomorrow—the garrison commanders, who would be arriving any day to attend the council of Shaftal, would have a place to sleep.
Sleet pinged on the hard brim of Clement’s hat. The carpenters began to chant a loud song about Shaftal’s awful weather. Their hammer blows slowed to keep rhythm, and soon every hammer within hearing whacked in unison, while red-cheeked, vapor-breathed, wool-dressed carpenters bellowed their objections to the looming storm
At Clement’s side, Seth also began to sing: “Why must it snow in spring? It is not just nor right!” Her voice was rough and homely as raw lumber.
“Ark!” Gabian shrieked, and wriggled joyfully against Clement’s breast.
They crossed the fallen gate, Seth greeting one of the gate guards by name. Now, having finally broken free of the soldiers’ anxieties, they rubbed elbows with busy citizens trying to finish their errands and tasks so they could take shelter from the storm.
Seth tucked a hand into the crook of Clement’s arm.
Clement looked down, and saw Gabian’s bright gaze peeking up at her, as if to ask why she found happiness so alien and bewildering. Even through the leather and wool of their heavy winter clothing, Seth was a warm pressure, tucked up against Clement as though they were an ordinary couple taking a baby on a stroll on a typically wretched winter day in Shaftal.
Of course they weren’t, and Clement noticed some hostile stares. She also noticed that Seth was staring back. Not easily discouraged? Well, that certainly was true.
In the square fronting Travesty, Seth dragged a little, apparently unable to tear her gaze from the soaring towers and extravagant decorations of the buildings on that street, a rare sight, and a shameful one in this land of extreme practicality. At the ugly, squatting stone monolith at the end of the square, the usual idling crowd had been diminished but not dispelled by the weather.
“What a horrible place!” said Seth. “How hard would it have been to pleasingly balance the windows? And why must the walls seem on the verge of falling onto us? And what idiot decided to build with that hideous stone? Of course they must call this building Travesty!”
“Unfortunately, it’s the only building in town that’s large enough to house a government.”
“Will they rebuild the House of Lilterwess?”
“I don’t think so. If there’s rebuilding, the Library at Kisha will be first—these people are obsessed with books.”
Having been admitted by Paladins, they unwrapped and unbooted themselves in the vast cloakroom, and made their way through a wide, crowded, noisy hall in which every single piece of extremely ornamental furniture was occupied. What all these people thought they were doing here Clement did not know.
In a room beyond the hall, Norina Truthken had set up her domain. There she kept collected the young air elementals who, after causing great trouble to their parents and communities, had been sent to her as soon as word of the Truthken had spread. Through the storms of winter the air children had come, often unescorted, always unannounced, never recommended. Now, an excessively upright twelve-year-old boy demanded that Seth identify and explain herself, just as one or another of the air children demanded of everyone the first time they entered the Travesty. These children must have responsibilities, Norina had said. But a responsibility like this? Well, if anyone were incapable of error, it was Norina.
The Truthken, who had been standing over a desk reviewing a line of text with a rather frustrated-looking girl, now observed the boy’s interrogation of Seth. Norina’s hair was clipped as close to her head as any soldier’s, which signaled her status, should there be someone whose creeping skin were not a clear enough signal. Once, long ago, a person stupid enough to attack Norina had managed to slash her face open, which was an impulse Clement understood well. Every time Clement saw Norina she had this same thought, and the Truthken knew it.
“Well, we are worried about you, general,” said Norina to her.
“So I have gathered, Madam Truthken.”
“Should I be offended by your resentment, or should I admire the skill with which you mask it? I can never decide.”
“Of course I’m skilled—I’ve had thirty years of practice. How are the governors of Shaftal today?”
“Working—some harder than others.” Norina gestured towards a hallway. “Karis is expecting you.”
In the meantime, Seth had been permitted to enter. As they started down designated hall, she said, “What was that boy? And all those other intimidating children? And those monstrous books they were reading? I have never seen anything like it.”
“They say it’s a law school.”
“Oh, those are air children. They do make the skin crawl, don’t they. But that woman—!”
“That was Norina Truthken. Her duty is to locate and rehabilitate—or else execute—the villains of the world. She seems to think I can be rehabilitated, though being executed would be less painful. Seth, I should warn you—“
They turned the corner, and there, standing in an open doorway, was the G’deon: tall, broad, big-shouldered, ham-fisted, dirt-smeared, dressed in much-mended work clothes, with a massive hammer tucked into her belt. It was Karis who had named the building Travesty, and had set about destroying and rebuilding it, one wall at a time. When Clement first met her, she had been covered with pulverized mortar, and ever since then it had been plaster dust and dirt. No one would ever accuse Karis of keeping her hands clean.
“It took you long enough to get here,” Karis said. “Anyway, you’re staying for supper.”
She stepped back through the open doorway, beyond which Zanja na’Tarwein sat cross-legged on the hearth—her extinct people had lived without furniture, and she still preferred not to use it. Today she wore a restrained, meticulously fitted suit, as black as the slim braid that draped over her shoulder like a woven cord. Karis could not have chosen a lover more physically and mentally unlike herself: compact, sharp-edged, dark-skinned and dark-haired, quick and mystical, remarkably impractical.
The door closed. Zanja held out her arms and Clement handed Gabian to her, then sat on a footstool that was upholstered in needlework so lovely it seemed wrong to use it for such a humble purpose. “I believe I’m the victim of a conspiracy,” she said to Zanja in Sainnese.
“You are—but it’s a conspiracy of friends,” Zanja replied in the same language, one of at least three in which she was fluent. “Emil advised Karis that some of the tasks he gives you are impossible to achieve; Norina warned her that you are under unendurable strain; J’han confided his concerns for your health; Medric dreamed of your cow farmer’s arrival; and Gilly declared that you would only take a day for yourself under duress.”
“You are dangerous meddlers, every one of you.”
“ Now you realize this?”
“Oh, I will never doubt your own or your family’s ability to achieve by indirection that which cannot be achieved by force. And of course you act in good will. But what did Medric dream? Why is a soldier’s dalliance with a farmer worthy of a seer’s attention?”
“Our much-beloved madman rarely bothers to explain himself,” said Zanja. “You can be sure it’s important, though.”
“If it’s important, then you all should stop frightening her.”
“That one? Oh, no, she’s not likely to be frightened so easily.”
“Zanja—I’m feeling stupid again.”
“You have no idea what she is? Look!”
Clement looked, and saw Seth and Karis, clasping each other’s hands, speechless, seemingly entranced.
Clement said, “Bloody hell. What is she then?”
“It’s in their hands, Clement. My wife’s palms are coarse and seared by fire. Your cow farmer’s palms look like leather, and I think her grip would not be easy to dislodge. They enter the world hands first, both of them.”
Clement remembered how quickly Seth’s hands could find the way to bare skin; how Karis’s hands had bent the iron bars of the garrison gate; how Seth’s hands had clenched the porch post as Clement walked away; how Karis’s hand had reached ahead of her as she climbed towards Clement across the rubble.
“Earth in hands, fire in eyes, air in skin, water in voice,” said Zanja. “So elemental talent may be recognized. That old saying sounds much better in Shaftalese.”
“She’s an earth blood?”
Zanja quirked an eyebrow. “What, your interactions with her have not been memorable?”
It was common knowledge, Clement remembered, that earth bloods were excellent lovers.
The trance seemed to have finally broken, and Zanja stood up to greet Seth, and then she handed Gabian to Karis, who declared that she wanted to do nothing but hold him for the rest of the day. It appeared that Clement was destined to spend the afternoon as neither a general nor a mother. The prospect made her feel quite disoriented.
Seth knelt beside the stool and put her hand on Clement’s knee.
“She overwhelms everyone,” said Clement, “As I was about to warn you. And the others of her family—well, the full strangeness of this household is not easy to describe.”
Zanja said, “Greetings, I am Zanja, a fire blood, wife of Karis, Speaker for the Ashawala’i.”
“But—“ began Seth.
“My tribe are ghosts,” Zanja said. “Sometimes I am one also.”
The communicating door to the library opened, and Emil, his gray hair tied back with a ribbon to expose his three gold earrings, peered into the room. “Greetings, General Clement.”
“Good afternoon, Emil. May I present Mariseth of High Meadow Farm, the councilor from Basdown?”
Seth leapt to her feet. Emil clasped her hand, and the lines that fanned out from the corners of his eyes deepened. “There must be a great deal of earth talent in Basdown, that they can afford to waste it on government.”
“They thought I could fix bigger problems than sick cows,” said Seth.
“Hmm. Fix problems, you say. Many new councilors seem to think their job is to punish. The people of Basdown are disinclined to punish the Sainnites for what they’ve done?”
Emil’s conversations were often like this, conducted in great intuitive leaps, efficient but sometimes baffling to his listeners. He had been a Paladin his entire life. But his eyes, the liveliest and most expressive part of his face, were nothing like the passively attentive gaze of a good soldier. Paladins choose—they make an art of choosing; they study and argue about it their entire lives. Clement’s anxieties again began to claw at her.
Seth said, “The people of Basdown are not united. Even those who see no value in punishing the Sainnites argue that our region has not suffered directly from their rule. So they think it might be wrong to prevent others’ vengeance.”
“It is a good point,” said Emil.
“But they’re wrong! And vengeance only leads to more vengeance! We should not allow our future to be shaped by anger and loss—that seems even more stupid than what the Sainnites have done to us.”
Emil smiled with his entire face now, not just with his eyes. “You’ll be making that argument more frequently than you like, I’m afraid. Welcome to Watfield, councilor.”
He departed soon, for even with the aid of Zanja and Medric and numerous clerks and librarians, his work never seemed finished. Then Karis showed the way through the maze of dim hallways, up two hidden stairways, to the dusty and echoing third floor of the monstrous house. As they negotiated the way upwards, Seth and Karis exclaimed at every one of the building’s faults: the maze-like hallways, the uneven stair steps, the crooked walls, the creaking floorboards.
Zanja was as indifferent to buildings as she was to furniture. She asked about Clement’s progress at learning to read, for Emil wanted Clement to study Paladin ethics and make herself into an example, a soldier who became a Paladin. He could not believe that books had no effect on Sainnites, whether or not they could read.
“Ethics,” said Clement. “That’s about choices, isn’t it?”
“It was about one choice, according to the Paladins. An ethical person refuses to be a conduit for evil.”
They had climbed three more steps before Clement realized Zanja was being sarcastic. “Sometimes the evil lies far in the future! How can we possibly know the future effects of what we do now?”
“Oh, that’s the hard part,” said Zanja, with an edge of anger in her voice. “But sometimes evil is obvious.”
When the Sainnites massacred Zanja’s tribe, that had indeed been an evil act, and Clement was glad she could say she had argued against it, for all the good her arguments had done. That attack had also been unimaginably stupid, for it had unleashed Zanja—a crosser of boundaries, a hinge of history. The Sainnites, bloody fools, had set that woman loose upon themselves.
They reached the end of the last hall. Karis opened a door, saying what a wonder it was that one room in the building had nothing wrong with it, except for its remoteness. “Can you be comfortable so far above ground, though?” she asked Seth.
“I’m not that sensitive,” said Seth. “I can’t endure boats, though—or being dangled from ropes.”
“Can you cross bridges? I can’t—not wooden bridges, anyway. Stone bridges I can manage, if I move quickly.” Karis added briskly, “We eat by the clock here—Garland is a military man.” Without disturbing Gabian, who had fallen asleep in the crook of her arm, she reached back to clasp Clement’s shoulder and push her into the room after Seth.
The door closed, the floor creaked, and then there was silence.
The room was warm and well lit, with a brisk fire in the fireplace and a lamp burning atop a bureau. The rug was extraordinary, woven in a complex pattern of stylized flower bulbs, each one bravely opening its buds. And beside the window, which had a shutter bravely open to the weather, a dish of living flowers bloomed. Hope, said the room to Clement.
“Those people act as a family to you,” Seth said.
“Prying, interfering, protecting—that’s what families do.”
Seth was wandering the small room in apparent delight, and now paused at the flowers. “What are these?” she asked herself. “Such an extraordinary blue color! And that fragrance!”
“It’s a Sainnese flower, which we call spring-in-winter. That plant is descended from my mother’s bulbs. Zanja declares that a blooming flower is my name-glyph. But I think she must be wrong, for all Sainnites love flowers. I am hardly unique.”
Seth was coming towards her, but she stopped now and glanced back at the blooming flowers, and down at the blooming carpet. “I’ve never heard of that glyph sign. But the G’deon’s wife is a famous glyph reader, isn’t she?”
“She invents her own glyphs, I think, and then they mean whatever she wants them to mean.”
Seth laughed. She had drawn close now, and was hardly more than a step away. “Clem—Can you come out from under all that brass and leather?”
Of course Seth remained undiscouraged. She was an earth blood—reliable as dirt, persistent as a weasel, and stubborn—like Norina said of Karis—as an old tree stump.
Clement undid her buckles and buttons. She took hold of Seth’s strong hands, and helped them find the way inside her linen undershirt.
They entirely missed supper.
WATER LOGIC, copyright © 2007, Laurie J. Marks