Smoke wove thin strands up from the ashes of the fireplace in the Eonóll Inn. What remained of a log flaked and crumbled, and a few cinders swirled up above the hearth and threatened to nip at my fingers as I folded my journal shut and watched Khal rest his head in his hands. Warmth cast his cheeks in shades of red; maroon, beneath his eyes; but those irises—they remained a crystalline hue. A hint of tears trembled there. His breathing softened until only the slow rise and fall of his chest remained. After a few moments, he rose and departed up the stairs.
I sunk deeper into my chair and witnessed the last of the flames flicker out and hiss into silence. A few locals filtered out, as the evening drew to a close, and through the window beside me the sun drifted beneath the canopy, painting the leaves autumnal, then slipped out of sight. The forest fell to black.
Liam tended the bar. He wormed rags into mugs. He stacked glasses onto racks. And then, after wiping the bartop, he poured two last pints and carried one over to my seat. Froth threatened to spill over the rim, and I sipped at it—to be safe—as he settled into the chair across from me.
— You got to the…. He kneaded his brow a moment. That part.
— Yes, we did. I tugged my journal back out of my pack and laid it over my knee. I didn’t expect it to go the way it did, to be honest. I thought he’d find them again, eventually.
A gloom fell over Liam’s gaze, and he drew a long sip from his glass. I’m sure they’re out there telling that version of the story in inns and alehouses the realms over, but the truth isn’t that pretty. Never is.
— When I was still studying to become a Chronicler, I read, I began, then shook my head. No, maybe I heard it—well, it went that each story is told twice. First as tragedy, then as triumph. Most people only ever hear the second. But the ones who lived it know the first.
— Aye, that sounds about right. Liam swirled his glass, watching the bubbles caught in the froth float around the outer lip. How are you holding up? With the story and all that, I mean.
— Well enough. It is quick in some ways, slow in others, but I think I’m seeing how it moves into the stories about him I’m more familiar with.
— And you’re happy with that?
— I suppose so. I gave Liam a stern look over the rim of my glass, drawing a long sip, and he held up his hands in mock surrender.
— No, no, I didn’t mean to say you shouldn’t, only…. He shrugged and cast a hand over his shoulder, towards the stairs. It’s just, if that’s what you’re wanting, you might not be pleased with what you find.
— Why’s that?
— You’ll see, I suppose, Liam said, kneading his hands before what remained of the fire. You wouldn’t happen to know where….
The door to the inn groaned open, and Édara stepped through, sloughing a coat onto the rack beside her and marching over to where we sat.
— Speak of a demon and one shall appear. Liam grinned and tugged another seat between the two of us. Come on now, sit.
Édara stood a moment with her hands upon the back of the chair, then nodded to Liam. Would you let me speak to her alone for a moment?
Liam shuffled a moment as if to protest, but instead he took up his pint and strolled back to the bar. Édara stepped around and crumpled into his old seat. Her arms draped over their rests, and the ink upon her skin seemed to swirl and warp in the low light of the inn. I bit my lip.
— I came across the strangest of fellows today, Édara said, staring at the ashes in the fireplace. You don’t often meet Shirenan princes this far east.
— You met Koda? My eyes alit, and I aimed a finger at the portrait of Édara which hung on the wall. I thought you might be interested in him. He’s someone who knows a bit more about Nychiour than these riverfolk. Someone you could talk to about home.
— It seems he is not the only one who knows a fair bit about the eastern realms.
— He certainly is an interesting fellow, yes.
— Where did you come from, chronicler?
— I’m sorry?
— It’s a perfectly simple question. Édara gripped the ends of her arm rests and leaned forward, sitting straight in her seat. Where did you come from?
— Mávben, I said. Near Keirigan.
— I know where Mávben is. Édara took a moment to knead her brow. This… Koda, he told me a few things about your last reunions which you must have failed to mention yourself. How long ago were you in Metir Keviv?
— I’ve never been to Metir Keviv. I don’t know what Koda told you, but I haven’t been west of the riverlands. Not yet, at least.
— And Vómakháll?
— I’ve never seen it.
Édara nodded to herself. I want to believe you, chronicler. But you recognized my tattoos awfully quickly. Turn out your bag.
— I don’t think that’ll be necessary. I told you, I haven’t been east of the straits.
— Turn it out, chronicler. Édara’s eyes glowed as embers.
With timid hands, I pulled my travel pack up into my lap. Édara dragged a small table over to our seats, and I began setting each trinket and tool atop it. I brought out my journals—several with loose papers jutting out from their pages—and Édara began leafing through them. I set a few charms beneath those, gifts from the druids of Keirigan. A pan-flute carved from bone. A handful of coins. A folding fan. A spyglass with simple scripts etched around the lenses. A few books which had weighed down the bottom of my pack for several years now, their pages yellowing and thin. And finally, a dozen or so writing utensils which had slipped down and been lost amidst pencil shavings and crumpled papers in the bowels of my pack. I folded the bag inside out and dusted it down. Motes of sand and ash swirled in the air.
Édara folded my newest journal over her knee and began picking up each souvenir from my journeys, turning them over in the light. She arched her brow at the druidic charms, feeling the runes carved in their faces. The coins came from a dozen cities along the Emerald Coast, to our northwest. The books were bland histories. The pan-flute from the nomadic seafarers of the western waves. And then she picked up the spyglass and pressed her lips.
— This is the craft of Vómakháll.
— I bought it off a merchant in Akhon.
— The Paroeken do not sell their trinkets.
— You can find the damndest things in the hands of travelling merchants. I dusted my hands and shrugged. I’ve never been to Vómakháll. I promise.
— Don’t. Édara drew in a breath, then took the journal off her knee and held it up. First page, second line, you wrote that you were told about the festival in Mávben. If you were there to see it, why say that?
— I misspoke then. I write quite a bit. Not all of it is going to be perfect.
— You gave your name as Edèl to this villager.
— Every chronicler goes by many names.
— And the next day, you met a man who told you a story in Valkon, but you said you didn’t need him to translate it. I thought you’d never been south of the Shóroll?
— I know the Noble Tongue, yes. But only for the literature.
— But the other day, Khal showed you his coin from Metir Keviv. If you know Valkon, why didn’t you translate it yourself?
— I wanted to hear what he thought it meant.
Édara muttered beneath her breath. Why are you dragging this out?
— I have never been to Metir Keviv. I don’t know where you got this notion—
— Here! Édara jabbed a finger at one of the pages in my journal. Right after you say you left Mávben, you told some travelers that you had met a huntsman in Metir Keviv. Those are your words. There, in your handwriting.
I grit my teeth.
— Don’t tell me you didn’t write this. How much of what you told us is a lie? Is this whole journal made up? Just fiction? Did the Fair Lady send you? Why would you go to such lengths to get us to believe you came from Mávben?
— I didn’t want you to think I’d been sent by someone else. I came of my own volition.
— That’s just another lie, isn’t it? Édara scoffed. I’ve pulled off the mask, and you’d still have me believe you’re just some chronicler come to hear our story?
— You need to believe me, Édara. It isn’t what it looks like.
— Isn’t it?
— No. She buried her head in her hands, and sob gripped her. Why would you do this? We trusted you. I thought you were different. I thought you might help him. Don’t you know how much it will hurt him to know that you did this for—for what? Why are you here?
— I’m here to help, Édara. I promise you this isn’t what it looks like.
— No. She snatched up my bag and began burying my books and trinkets back inside. Her knuckles wrapped white about my journal, and she flung it into the fireplace. Ashes spat up about the hearth as I reached amidst the coals and grabbed it back. Embers threatened to eat up the pages, but I patted it against my thigh and tucked it under my arm.
— Édara, you need to calm down. It is a simple misunderstanding.
— Simple? She clenched my pack in both hands, her arms locked so tight they shook. A simple misunderstanding? You lied to us. I thought you cared about him. I thought you wanted to help. But you’re just here to take him away, aren’t you? To bring him back to Metir Keviv where you can pick him apart?
She flung my bag, and it smacked the wall.
— Get out! She grabbed a fistful of my cloak and dragged me towards the door. Don’t think to come back. Don’t ever come back. If I see you, I won’t give you the chance to crawl back to Metir Keviv. Not again.
Before I could tug myself free, she wrenched open the door and tossed me out. I scuffed against the cobblestones, and then my pack hit me square in the chest and I tumbled back, my head smacking the stones. I lay there. My vision sparkled with strands of light. My stomach tightened as I stumbled back to my feet, but the door thundered shut before I had a chance to speak.
— Édara? I rapped my fist on the door. Édara, I can explain.
— I didn’t come from Metir Keviv. I promise.
— Édara, please. I’m only a chronicler.
— Khal? Khal, can you hear me?
— Please. Please….
I rested my head upon the door. My breaths came heavy and slow as I lay my hand flat upon the wood. Fine, yes, I came from Metir Keviv. I made up the journal entries. I thought you might read them, so I took old ones and made them look new. I have been to Keirigan. And Mávben. I saw the festival. Just a few years ago. Please. I went looking for you near Vómakháll. I found that old storyteller, Lewen, you mentioned. He told me you were here. I even found Lána.
The door lurched open. Édara stood in the threshold.
— Leave, she said. Leave, and never say that name again.
— Are you afraid he’ll look for her?
Édara slammed the door shut. The gust sent me stumbling back. I stood a while before the door, then took up my pack and turned to face the road back to Nedyeser.
Leaves littered the walkway to the door—barely visible through the shadows oozing over the cobblestones and creeping on tendril-fingers up the walls of the Eonóll Inn. Plaster peeled back just below the eaves, where a family of swallows had taken nest in a nook. A few twigs and dried needles sprouted out from their alcove, and a fluttering of quiet wings rustled up dust. Sunlight still wove its way through the forests, painting each mote an ember as they wafted down to the grasses hemming the foundation of the inn.
Over the tips of the trees, passing north of Nedyeser, lantern light glimmered on the leaves, and the slurred songs of landsknecht stumbling back home, or trotting on tired horses, carried over the canopy and caught in my ear. It looked as if the gods had spilled a flask of ambrosia over the treetops, a honey-hue seeping into the boughs and dribbling down to the road; I walked a while, back towards the keep, and listened to them as their song grew faint and, in time, they slipped beyond sight or sound.