This tree is an old one. Do not worry, I will not bore you with a description of its too-soft leaves or the fibrous hairs which run along its twisting trunk—split in twine, forming a ring as tall as a man at its center, like some otherworldly door—but believe me when I say this: it has stood in this plaza, in this city, for longer than the oldest stones have laid in the oldest towers. This is Metir Keviv; this tree, the city; and at its foot, Khal found himself clutching his walking stick, studying the white roots which wound their way through the cracks in the cobblestones and out into the foundations of the tenements and shops lining the courtyard. He found himself there, and he found himself wondering. How long had it been since he had first seen this place? How much deeper the wrinkles in his cheeks? How much heavier his limbs? How sallow and waxen his skin?
Now, the fingers of his left hand ended at the knuckles, and a scar bit his brow, jagged and white as the knife’s edge. What youth he’d had—it had not molted to reveal his wisdom. It had simply sloughed as all the detail off a weather-worn statue, leaving the soft lines and tiredness of a man who has travelled too far, too long, and who still may find no rest. A nervous hand plucked a leaf, and he held it a moment to smell the sweetness of its sap on his tongue and to admire the lacework veins running beneath the pastel skin. And then, turning, he let it fall faintly, and faintly falling it twisted, lulling on a latent breeze, and settled in a nook in the roots as slow steps carried him down into the city once more.
Here, one could see the shore of the city—the shore of the lonely isle on which Metir Keviv sat—where thousands of pilgrims stood in silent throngs, waiting for the auroral lights to blossom overhead. Khal fumbled at his coat pocket and clicked open a watch. The finger flicked near to twenty: midnight, when all their waiting, all their journeys from every corner of the continent, all their years of servitude would be rewarded with just one burning moment. But he supposed that moment was better than his own reason for being here. Anything, really, would have been.
As Khal strolled down through the streets of Metir Keviv, he fumbled for a cigar and pinched it between white-cracked lips. The rich taste of smoke coated his mouth, and he let out a long, spooling breath of it, watching its tendrils feel their way up past russet shingles and blackened chimneys, up into the starlit skies.
Somewhere in this city, Death waited for him, and she carried a sword of stone.
Sunlight still rippled along the silhouette of the dome of the Seventh-Hill Temple, giving it an opaline gleam. Its red marble columns stood amongst the towers and minarets of the lower noble houses, above which crossed a hundred bridges like a spider’s web between the teetering spires of High House T’ver.
Once Khal had walked along those bare strands of stone, but more years lay between him and that place than he cared to count. So too had he studied at the University of Vómakháll in the north, and once he had stayed as the esteemed guest of the sultan there. He had seen the imperial courts of the southern empresses, gold-laden and gaudy, and he had trudged through the Sea of Cinders to the far republic of Sevath, where a hundred generations of scholars had toiled to remember each letter of the languages of old. He had even crossed the oceans to the Old World, whence all their peoples came, and found there such things as are spoken of only in the dead tongues of starlit years. And now, here where he had first found the names of things, he came at last to die.
He had walked the long, straight path to this place. He had seen things none living would believe. He had named the wind and stone. He had danced with kings and duelled with queens. He had walked beneath skies full of strange, otherworldly stars. No forks in the road, no choices—only the long walk—and now that brought him here, where he could finally rest.
Khal wound his way to the plaza before the Seventh-Hill Temple and, at a small cafe tucked beside the pillars, took a seat and sipped a coffee. A few people meandered the alleyways and streets of the city, though most were waiting on the water or the shore, even those who had seen the auroras a thousand times before. Another click of his pocketwatch. Half an hour to midnight. She would have to be arriving soon.
A low breeze tickled along the nape of his neck. Khal smoothed the hairs along his arm. Sunspots blossomed here and there on his skin, and he pressed his lips, kneading the remnants of a scar which crawled the length of his forearm, easing to a sliver just short of his elbow. It itched, as had all the others these last few days. An automatic hand slid here and there: beneath his arm, to his ribs, to the shoulder which still ached when he lifted his cup to his lips. A long finger of steam slid up his lip, and the bitter sweet scent of chocolate swirled amidst the coffee. Khal managed a smile.
Across the plaza, the crowds thinned. From afar, he could hear the heavy click of her heels. A few passersby ducked into shops or pulled their hoods tighter or simply stopped and faced the walls. There was a sense one developed, staying in such a city for as long as they had, for those times when it was better to act as though one hears and sees nothing at all. Now, as his Death stepped slowly into the plaza, Khal could not help but admire the instincts of the people of Metir Keviv. They had a knack for surviving that it seemed he did not share.
His Death wore the stiff-necked coat of the southerners—cuffed and collared, the matte hue of slate—and her hair shone as strands of obsidian in the straying sunlight, burning oranges and yellows. She ran a cautious gaze over the facades of the tenements and the temple and the shuttered stores, and then his Death strolled over, her coattails lapping gently at the air, and sank into the seat across from him.
“You’re thin.” Hers was a sibilant voice, resonating, yet she clipped her words in a way that might have seemed sharp had she not so smooth a tone. “Content, I hope, but thin. The years have worn away at you, haven’t they?”
“I’m only tired, Isyme.”
“We don’t need to play these games, Khal. You may come honestly to me. You are older than you look, whittled to the bone by what you’ve seen. Tell me the name, and I will let you have your rest. You, more than anyone, deserve it.”
Khal fished his cigar tin from his coat pocket and pushed it across the table. She studied it a moment, then plucked one out and turned it around. After another long look at Khal, she set it back down and flicked her wrist.
A wisp of smoke. And then a blade slid into her grasp—a blade as black as the sky above and speckled with beads of starlight that he realized now were the golden curves and flicks of a cursive script, etched along the fuller. Its crossguard slid unadorned over a plain grip, though the pommel bent as a thorn in the same direction as the sword’s edge, itself a long, unwavering sliver of obsidian. Khal loosened his collar. Another sip of his coffee seared too hot on his lips.
He set down his cup with a heavy clink. “That shouldn’t belong to you.”
“We can play this game all night, Khal” —Isyme rapped a finger on the stone’s edge— “saying what should and shouldn’t be, but you and I both know that would be futile.”
Khal pressed his lips. “Isn’t it all?”
“The name, Khal. That is all I want.”
He rested his head in his hands, cool air nipping at his neck. Only the distant dripping of rainwater upon the cobblestones and, beyond, the whispers and bated breaths of pilgrims standing on the shore—these sounds alone wandered the city streets. Those, and the steady rhythm of Isyme’s finger rapping on the flat of her blade. With his eyes downcast, he saw in the vague reflection on the wood the sky and its tapestry of stars, and then from the west there unfurled a stream of colors—a serpentine band of every hue, named and nameless—which coiled upon itself and, slithering overhead, cast a warm glow along the hairs on his arms and the face of the wood and the rim of his cup. His coffee trembled. Black waves lapped at porcelain. The faint scent of incense wafted through the plaza, from the temple doors.
Khal nodded to himself, tracing a stray finger along the reflection of the auroras in the tabletop. “There is still beauty here,” he said. “I’ve seen this so many times before, but somehow you can find something new in it each time. Something worth seeing.”
“When I was just a boy,” he continued, “my mother told me that I should run. Never stop. Never settle. And I’ve followed her words for more years than I care to count. But now, Isyme, I’m tired. I don’t think I can run anymore. I don’t want to. I won’t give you what you want, and nothing you might do could sway me. I think you have a choice to make.”
Isyme leaned forward, the auroras casting autumnal hues over her eyes. The pallor of her skin seemed to wax and wane in the burning light. “You spent so many years as my apprentice, Khal, and yet you never did seem to learn the only lesson I ever tried to teach. There are no choices. No forks in the road. Only the long path. The straight path. And if yours ends here, then so be it.”
She stood, and a bead of silver slithered down the length of her blade, through ripples caught in stone, until it reached the end and fixed there, glistening, as she raised the long edge—only a silhouette against the auroral lights.
The blade hung there, overhead. Beyond, he could see the crest of the temple dome, speckled with dew, and further yet the vague forms of towers and manors and yet none of that—only the streams of light weaving and interweaving and, beyond, the tapestry of stars.
Khal glanced at Isyme. “I will see you soon.”
Neither her face nor her form emerged from the cold black sky, save those eyes, which shone pale, slivers of white. “No, Khal, you will not.” With a flick of her wrist, her blade dissipated, and she clamped her hand down on Khal’s shoulder. Leaning close, her voice slid out, a long and ruinous whisper. “You will live. Until all the stars have burned out and all your so-called beauty is buried beneath the ash, you will live. I swear this to you now.”
Isyme peeled her hand from his shoulder and stepped back. Her cheeks slacked, and the auroral light faded from around her eyes, leaving only those black pearls for irises, staring at Khal, who now gripped the arms of his chair. She touched an uncertain hand to her lips, then, just as quickly, turned away.
Khal rested a hand on his own chest. His heartbeat drummed against his fingers, and the heat of fear glowed on his brow, but neither compared to the sense of… weight that eased on his sternum and made each breath slower, tighter.
“Goodbye, Khal,” Isyme said, her back to him.
He touched his chest again, then a third time.
“What have you—” But before he could finish, she marched back across the plaza and around the bend, disappearing into the city.
Khal slumped back into his chair. The weight of his body settled upon him—arms dangling over their rests, legs aching in the very bone.
For a long while, he sat there, hand to his chest, until at last, in a daze, he stood and wandered back into the streets, back into Metir Keviv, not entirely sure of what had just transpired, nor what it would mean in the times to come.