They left under the cover of dawn, trailed by two guards and a groaning Rob. The guards called each other Bend and Snap, and talked enough for all five of them.

Hanson didn’t look at her, even though she fumbled at the reins of her placid gelding. She’d much rather walk, but time was limited.

Dinner was eaten by the roadside, to the gossiping of Bend and Snap. They slept on the ground, tavern floors, and stables. The days passed, swaying on horseback.

:-#-:

Thimany wasn’t much of a town to look at, but it had an inn with empty rooms. It also had a temple, a grand building dedicated to a god she’d never heard of, a trading station, and a stable. The rest of it was silent houses one step on the wrong side of well-kept.

She slipped out of the inn whilst the men played cards, the pouch of diamonds in one hand and a slip of paper in the other. The trading post was staffed by one man, too plump to have been on the road in the last decade.

“What is it?” he said, not looking up from a battered book.

She tossed the diamonds on the counter. They thudded, jangling. A single gem fell out of the top, clattering on worn wood.

He looked up, focusing on her. “I don’t deal in stones,” he said sharply. “They’re always stolen.”

“When you were eleven,” she said, “You killed a man.”

“Get out,” he said.

“It wasn’t a bad thing, not with what he did to your sister. No one spoke a word against you. But you left home anyway, and you’ve never gone back.” She stared at him, long and hard. “She’s married. She has three children.”

He rose to his feet, slow, steady. “I said get out.”

“I am an Anhy,” she said.

He paused. They’d always heard of the name. Or was that later?

“I need you to fulfil these instructions to the letter.” She laid the papers on the counter. “In return, the diamonds are yours. They aren’t stolen. No one will come looking for them.”

A dozen heartbeats. He picked up the papers, scanning them. “You can’t be -”

“I am,” she said.

“I don’t have the supplies in stock.”

She smiled. He frowned at her, and said, “What’s his name?”

His. The husband. Caron breathed in knowing. “Thorn.”

The trader nodded. “Good man.” He held his hand out. “Deal.”

Her hand was small and pale in his.

:-#-:

The sun was setting, leaving mile after mile of flat fields in shadow. Candles shone in each of the temple’s windows, flickering next to polished white stone. The door was held open with a lump of flint bigger than her foot. Caron stepped inside, footsteps echoing in the dim, wide space.

There were no seats and no altar, but she wasn’t here to pray.

A wrought-iron staircase spiralled up the walls to the domed ceiling. She climbed it, sliding her hand along the smooth railing. It had been rock, once. She wondered if it could remember the endless stretch of time it had been nothing but earth under someone’s feet.

At the top of the stairs there was a balcony. A man was already standing at it, grey-haired and in plain brown robes. He said, “If you’re a child of the faith, you’ve missed my service.”

“I have no faith,” she said.

“No?” He glanced at her, smiling. He was wrinkled with age and laughter. “You follow no god?”

“There was a sanctum in my village,” she said, “But no one visited it for more than births, deaths, and festivals. I don’t know who your god is.”

He chuckled. “You’re an honest soul. It’s a rare gift.”

She smiled briefly.

“I don’t follow a god,” he said. “Saints, rather. People who were so good in their lives that their souls were preserved in the consortium, to help others in need.” He turned. “Pater Rohran.”

“Caron Anhy,” she said, moving forward. The farmland stretched out into darkness. “You must have very few of your saints then. Not many people are good.”

Another chuckle. “If we demanded perfection, no one could be one. No person is always good. Our saints acted more in goodness than evil. How much more can anyone ask of another?”

She shook her head. “Good and evil doesn’t exist. There’s only what people do, or don’t do.”

“You say that as if life has done you wrong.”

Life? Not life. “I’m a Seer, Pater.”

He clapped his hands together. “A visionary in my little temple! I’m honoured to meet you, madame.”

She looked away.

“With such a long view of time, I can imagine that you would see all the darkness in it.” He rapped his fingers on the railing. “When I told my fellows my calling was to travel to a distant land and build a temple there, they thought I’d be dead in a year. This place is dark and barbaric to them. But the council granted me funding, so here I am.” A soft pause. “Much of the year it’s quiet, and most come here for a dry place to sleep, or in need of care. Yet many of the merchants who pass through know of my faith. Some follow it. Some have come to follow it.” A touch on her arm. “I beg you to look anew, madame. There is always goodness to be found, no matter the evil.”

He went past her, bare feet silent.

“Go home, Pater,” Caron said. “She’s waiting for you.” And the not-so-little one, too.

A pause, breath catching in the throat –

He made no sound as he descended into darkness.

:-#-:

Hanson was waiting for her in the inn, by the dying fire. She paused, door shut behind her. “You don’t have to worry for me.”

“I want to,” he said.

She looked down. He stood, walking past her to the stairs with long strides. She said, “I swore vows.”

He stopped.

She sighed. “I can’t just turn away from that. If I did, I’d be just like him.” Lie. She yearned for, craved, Farren. It hurt so much to want him. How could she have that, but love Hanson so much too?

“And when he’s dead?” Hanson said.

She smiled, moved towards him, and took his hand.

:-#-:

In the morning, Bend and Snap were hungover and grumbling. Hanson took one look at them and sent them back to their room. In the airy main room, Caron said, “Get the keys and lock the door.”

“We’re abandoning them?” Rob yawned. “What’d they do?”

“They’ll catch up,” she said. “We don’t need them for the next part.”

He sighed. She stared at him. He glanced up at her. “You don’t mean -”

“You have to do some work,” she said dryly. “Charm the cook. It won’t hurt you.”

Rob rolled his eyes, standing. “You just want to get rid of me.”

“I want a lot of things,” she said softly.

He sighed, looking away. “Killing him won’t help anything.”

“Talk to the cook,” Caron said. “Please.”

He went, walking around her.

Hanson came down the stairs and said, low in her ear, “Will he break?”

“He’s already broken,” she said. “But he’ll hold. We all need to be there, to see it end.”

:-#-:

Caron woke up warm, tasting the sweet scents of her childhood.

She lay under the stars, blanket around to her. Rob was asleep, breathing steadily. Hanson was poking the fire with a stick. A breeze, soft and erratic, tugged at her hair. It carried the sounds of the marsh – croaking and cricketing and squeaking. Sometimes the shadow of an owl swept over them.

Hanson stood. The fire would need more wood to survive the night.

She could feel the ground trembling with thunder, horses running, an echo of the future. Caron rose soundlessly. They’d pitched up for the night on a dip in the hill above the marsh. She’d insisted on a fire – it would get them caught. Whilst any enemy would find their packs, they wouldn’t find the saddlebags or the horses, hidden in the copse where Hanson looked for firewood.

She walked down the hill and stopped where the ground went from solid earth to mud. Under full moonlight she surveyed the marsh. To normal sight it seemed dangerous, impenetrable. Her eyes saw tufts that would hold her weight for minutes or more, the mud that seemed safe but would eat you alive, mounds of earth on top of rocky outcrops.

For a moment, she looked up at the castle, secure on its soaring, solid perch.

Three steps forward, and she stood between two shallow reedy pools. Another two forward, the shadow of the keep luring her forwards… then left, picking her way through reeds and grass with unerring accuracy.

It was slow going, and her mind wandered.

She missed Farren. She could see what he was doing, if she wanted to torture herself. See the curve of his smile charming a pretty little thing. He twisted words and people with the same ease, and he always smiled, because she’d be able to see it.

One step. Two step. Three –

She stumbled, mud sucking at her boots. Her feet slid…

Slid and stopped. Caron stood, panting, heart pounding in her chest.

Would he be able to do that to her until the day he died? Distractions were fatal. Love was wrong. Silvin was gone. There was nothing to stop Farren from killing her, and he would try.

Her cheeks were wet. She touched her tears with her finger tips, wishing that Hanson was here to dry them.

She’d crossed half the marsh. It stretched around her, waiting to eat her up. Caron looked up at the castle. She breathed in her nose, out her mouth, and kept walking.

 

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