I first met your mother in the northern district of the Auroral City, where her family had settled some years before, fleeing from a war in the north, and now she worked as a servant for House T’ver—one of its lesser branches, that is. We met in an inn on the eastern shore; the walls sagged inwards, and the stench of mold hung heavy on the air, but there were few other establishments where one could find a drink in the whole city. The Fair Lady’s law kept the rest of Metir Keviv dry, but here, where migrants from the Riverlands and Vómakháll had settled, there were a few places where pioneering innkeepers still smuggled through the undercity, and one could get a pint without too much trouble.
I suppose I should explain why I was there. My own parents had passed through on their way south, towards Nirkesa, but my eldest brother and I had remained behind to send coin to them. Metir Keviv had more opportunities then for pay and we knew our family would struggle to find work in the south.
You will have to see Metir Keviv for yourself someday, Khal, but believe me when I tell you it is a city unlike any other in Alvyria. Spires carve through the clouds, and bridges leap between the towers of the nobility, creating a lattice of walkways over the markets and temples of the common folk. Beneath the streets, the undercity delves deep into the earth. That is where I stayed. Beyond the touch of sunlight, in a single-room apartment that I shared with my brother and another friend, I scraped together what coin I could for my folks down south.
But one day, in the second month of the Falling Tide, I made my way to the docks where I was employed moving cargo onto ships, and unloading merchant vessels as well, only to learn my employer had gone out of business. Forlorn, I went to spend what measly funds I had on a few drinks. I might have searched for more work or spent my coin on productive things, but I was young and despairing, and it had been more than half a year since my last drop of ale. I wandered the northern district until my aimless feet brought me to the steps of an inn, and I headed inside.
As I said, it was not the most prestigious of establishments, but then I was not the most prestigious of customers, so I suppose it was a perfect match.
There were paintings littering the wall above the hearth, and a gathering of locals and travelers loitered about between the tables while the innkeep hurried between them, delivering mugs and dishes and batting his brow with a rag. He was a portly fellow—once perhaps a stronger man, more stout of frame, but the years had done him no favors. Now a few wisps of hair haunted his head, and a beard rolled down to his belly, his moustache thick as a yak’s hide save where a scar split his lip and cheek. He leaned on the bar as I ambled up to the other side; there was a lull in the work as he fetched me a beer.
“Valkene?” he asked. “Or did you just step off the docks?”
“I’d prefer the rivers’ tongue, if you speak it.”
“Of course. You have that look about you.”
“What’re you saying there?” I had a fire to me then, Khal. Don’t tell your mother I told you this, but I was looking for something to throw myself into—a fight or a cause or something. I thought maybe he was one of those southrons who hated the riverfolk. Plenty of them do. So I sharpened my gaze and growled. “Is that supposed to mean something?”
“Homesick.” The innkeep clapped a cup down before me and poured. “And angry. Can’t blame you. You’ve been here a while then, I’d imagine.”
“Too long.” The ale was not particularly good, but I drank it all the same. “But what would a Valkon know of that?”
“You’ll have to ask a Valkon then,” he said. “But a word of advice, you ought to get out of here while you still can. This city has a way of eating people. Down to the bone.”
“It does.” I propped both elbows on the bar and rested my head in my hands. “Where are you from then, if you’re not a Valkon? You from Vómakháll?”
“In a sense. Came from the midlands, long time ago. Nirkesa, actually.”
“Nirkesa? My family is down there now.”
“There’s a city,” he said. “Not like Metir Keviv. This place is a crypt with a facade of marble. Why aren’t you there with them? I’m sure it would treat you better.”
“Not enough work.”
“At least the work there won’t kill you.”
“Maybe,” I said, “but now I’ve been here too long. Besides, my brother near broke his ankle at work and wouldn’t be able to travel on it.”
We talked a while longer; he spoke of the south, where my family was staying, with fields of grain that stretched beyond sight and, south yet, to the mountains of Nychiour, where their palaces glittered gold. He told me of his travels in the Mekhiri Peninsula, through the highlands and the sand-swept wastes. He told me of the vast trees of Nedyále and of the barren hills of the Hinterlands, and I began to gather the sort of life he had lived before he had settled here. After a time, he asked me of my home and of Keirigan. It had been a long while since anyone had taken interest in the Riverlands, let alone my time there, and so I spared no details. I described the light glancing off the leaves and vines crawling through the towers of the Floral City, and I told him of the rolling hills beneath, where one could still find rusted swords and shields among the grasses, remnants of an age-old battle fought there. At last, I told him of my home.
“Mávben is a quiet place,” I said. “Well inland, though you can catch the sea breeze early in the day, and if you do head to the coast, the hills taper right into the waves. Sometimes, on a good day, you’d swear you could see the old world to the east, over the water.”
“That’d be a sight,” the innkeeper said. “Reminds a man there are many places he’ll never see, no matter how far or how long he walks.”
“Well,” I said. “Thank you for the drinks, but I’d best be heading off soon.”
“Wait, one moment.”
The innkeep leaned over the bar, and for a moment a flash of heat spread through my cheeks and I turned away. He studied me for the span of a few seconds, then returned to cleaning out glasses behind the bar. “What do you do, son?” he said. “You’ve got a good pair of hands. Can you carry casks?”
“I can,” I said, “but also I can—I suppose, if it helps, I play the kithara.”
The innkeep nodded. “Well, I’ll have to see that then. And how old are you?”
I searched the innkeeper’s gaze for his motive. “Seventeen, give or take.”
“I see. And how old is your brother?”
“Eighteen,” I said. “Why?”
“I’ve a proposition for you. What’d you say your name was?”
“Lin.” I offered a hand. “Lin of Mávben.”
“Well, Lin, you seem a decent kid, and I’m going to need help around here soon enough. Why don’t you go on and bring that kithara of yours here. If you can entertain these folk and help around, I’ll let you stay upstairs while you sort out how you’re going to get out of this city. And you’d best get out of this city. I can’t feed a third mouth for too long.”
I wanted to hug the man, but instead I leapt out of my seat and hurried for the door, intent to gather my kithara and hurry back. “Thank you,” I said. “Lanar. Thank you so much. Lanar liyenni. I’ll grab my kithara.”
I burst out the door and scampered headlong through the streets, passing temple and inn, until I reached Tstheltiri Sare—my usual foot-path down into the Undercity. The alley wriggled between two buildings, sloping down and away into the earth, and I had to squirm my way through the crowds of people flowing forth from the deep. The bricks here were colder than the grave, and dew clung to the stones as I pressed my belly to the wall and shuffled further down. Soon the ceiling closed above me, and sunlight failed to reach; still the tunnel was filled wall to wall with people making their way up towards the surface. Alleys split off from this path, winding down as stray sprouts from the root. Children played between soil walls, their ash-caked cheeks illuminated by a few candles set into the walls and torches set above the doorways. At last, I came to our street and slipped off the main path.
We lived on a street known as Vagho Veniresha which once must have served as a home for miners but now had filled with immigrants from the Riverlands. We called it Mánv Shén, “Our Street,” and someone had set a sign above the archway which bore this name in the old script of our people:
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I’ve never seen that script used elsewhere, not even in the Riverlands, but we took some pride in it. I gave a gleeful smile to a few of our neighbors as I strode over to our door and set the key into the lock. Something caught my hand though. A vibration in the key. A slight tremor that rang through the metal and made my fingers numb. I hesitated. Somewhere within, a voice growled through tight lips, and I heard a shuffle of boots against the floorboards. Not walking. Kicking. A scuff of a sole over wood. Choked breaths.
“Áofala bé sheín,” a voice said—a woman’s, deep and sharp. “Tell me where he is? Do not make this harder than it has to be.”
“Fuck off.” My brother’s voice was raspy and tight; he sounded as though there was a hand around his throat. “I already told you. He left the city. Gone. You’re—”
A thump of a fist into flesh. My brother gasped.
“I am not an idiot,” the woman said. “Where is he?”
“Up yours, you fae-fucking piece of—”
The scream of steel leaving its sheathe quieted the room.
“You don’t have to do this. Please,” my brother said. I heard his boots scrape over the floor as he took a few steps back, towards the door. “He’s just a boy. Let him go.”
My brother’s back hit the door. I could feel the wood bend ever so slightly with his weight. The woman beat a fist into the wood above his shoulder. The door trembled. I leaned closer, peering through the cracks in the boards to see if I could catch a glimpse of her, but all I could see were the curls of my brother’s hair pressed flat against the wood. Sweat stained his shirt, and heat radiated from him. He sucked in a breath as the woman stepped closer.
“You know I cannot leave him alive,” she said. “And if you will not tell me….”
“Please,” my brother said. “Anything. Anything.”
Steel split through cotton and flesh. There was a hiss and a thunk, and then a pain split through my stomach and warmth began to dribble down my waist. I glanced down. Where the blade had left my brother’s back, it wedged its way between two planks in the door and buried itself in my gut. A grunt sputtered past my lips.
I heard the woman draw in a breath.
“Lin?” she said. “Lin Mávbenen?”
I clapped a hand to my mouth. The blade retracted from my stomach, and it felt as though someone had taken a handful of my intestines and was tugging them out through a slit in my skin, warm fluids slithering down my thigh. A drumming pain spread outward from my gut as I stood there, holding my breath. I fumbled with my other hand for the knife tucked in my waistband.
A weight collapsed against the door, and it rattled in its frame. The woman stepped around my brother just as I slipped my dagger free. Through the space between the planks, I watched as the shadows shifted—the light from inside occluded by the woman’s form, casting a darkness as she drew near. She let out a breath and bent over. Her eye appeared through the crack in the door. She saw me. One pale iris widened. And then I cried out and thrust my dagger through the slit.
A scream shook the alleyway. I released the dagger and turned, hobbling towards the archway leading back into the main street. There was a crack and a howl and several more screams, but I did not turn around, keeping myself hunkered down as I slipped into the crowds making their way towards the surface. I’d managed twenty paces forward when I heard shouts behind me, someone scrambling their way through the alley. People pressed their backs to the wall. I did the same. I pressed my face to the dirt. I dug my fingers into the cobblestones. A sole pair of boots marched down the path as everyone stood against the wall. I prayed that she would pass me by. Blood dribbled down my waist from my stomach. Numbness crept up my legs. The woman marched closer. I touched my forehead to the wall and whispered every prayer I knew. Then she passed and marched up the street, towards the surface. Soon, the crowd reformed behind her, but I stayed with my head against the cobble wall, and for a long while I waited, expecting her hand to yank my shoulder back and drive a blade through me, but she never came, and I never saw her again.
After a time, I stood. Dead legs carried me back home. My fingers prickled with numbness as I tugged the door open. I did not look at my brother, stepping over him; I kept my eyes up as I made my way over to the back wall and took up my kithara and prepared a pack of those few belongings I had, then I departed. Part of me, I think, did not want to believe that he was gone.
If I did not see his body, if I made it back to that inn, he would be there waiting for me, and so I tightened my belt a little higher on my waist and stumbled my way back up through the Undercity, up to the surface, until at last I came upon the door to the inn. The wood seemed painted the shade of slate, and the shingles above had leaked their russet hues, now grey as ash. The sun was so bright overhead I could not look up. I shielded my eyes as I tugged the door open and stumbled aside.
The innkeeper saw me. I held up my kithara. And then I collapsed to the floor.
My father kneaded his brow a moment as we sat beside the lake, and I saw him glance to me out of the corner of his eye. “I worry, Khal,” he said, “that someday you may come face to face with someone like that—a huntsman of the Runic Order.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Why would they come after you?”
“Wait, Khal. I need you to listen.” My father drew in a long breath and rested a hand on my shoulder. “If you meet a huntsman, you must not talk to them. Do not say a word. Do not tell them anything. If you can run, run. If you can hide, hide. But if you must fight, then kick and scream and bite and stab, and flee at the first chance you get. Do not try to fight honorably. Do not try to match them blade for blade. They will do anything in their power to kill you, and you will not win. Run. Run as far and as fast as you can. Khal, do you understand? You have to run. Never stop running.”
“But I don’t understand why they would come after me?” My father retracted his hand, but I caught his wrist and held tight. “Why did they come after you?”
“You have a gift,” he said, unfurling my grip on his wrist. He rustled my hair and managed the weakest smile I had ever seen him give. “Just promise me you won’t stop.”
I wanted to protest, but the pain in his eyes smothered my complaints.
“I promise,” I said. “But that can’t be the end of the story, can it?”
“No,” he said. The tension fled his shoulders, and color flooded back into his cheeks again. “It was not the end. It could not be. I awoke the next day in a room that was not my own to a sight I won’t soon forget.”