Empire's Exile Sample

by Marian L. Thorpe

Chapter One

I DID NOT TURN BACK to look at the land I was leaving, after Galen brought us to the path into the Durrains. I began to climb, always looking forward, and up. Anger fueled that climb, at first, cold fury at the sentence of exile. Perhaps I should have been grateful; I hadn't been executed, as I'd expected to be. My Emperor had given me a chance, small as it was.

"Take it slowly," Galen had said. He'd been further into the Durrains than anyone, but even he had no idea how high they were, or how wide. After a couple of hours of climbing, I needed to stop. I'd recovered from serious illness, including an infection in my lungs, not many weeks earlier. I hated showing weakness in front of Cillian, but if I were to have any chance of surviving in these mountains, I could not let pride override pragmatism.

We reached a small grassy meadow, scattered with boulders patched yellow and orange with lichen. I made my way to one of them, sitting down thankfully. I eased my pack off. Cillian had chosen a boulder a few paces away.

"Sorry," I said. "But I need a rest. I'm not as strong as I should be, after the illness."

"No matter," he answered. "Galen told us to take it slowly." He drank from his waterskin, sparingly. "Perhaps we should talk."

"About?"

"What we can expect from each other, as travelling companions," he said evenly. "I can build a fire, and pitch a tent, and use the stars to find my way, fairly well. I cannot use a bow, or butcher an animal. Or cook food, beyond a simple porridge and tea." His words were precise, with just enough difference in pronunciation to remind me our common tongue was not his native language.

"I can hunt," I replied, "and butcher what I kill. I can't cook much, either, but I can roast a rabbit over a fire. And I can navigate by the stars, too."

"I will be more dependent on you than you will be on me," he

observed.

"That's not a good situation," I said. "You can't hunt at all?"

"No. Except to fly a falcon."

"I should teach you to use a bow, then," I decided. "If I am injured, or worse, dead, you need to be able to feed yourself." We had two small bows meant for birds and small animals, and a dozen arrows each. I hadn't realized that Cillian had no idea how to use his.

"That might be best," he agreed. He glanced up the mountain.

"Another few minutes," I said. He nodded.

"You should decide," he said, "as you are the one recovering." He drank another small mouthful of water. "One more thing, Lena. I would like this to be understood from the beginning. I am used to travelling on my own, rarely with a companion and never with a woman. I will respect your privacy, and you are in no danger from me."

"Nor are you from me," I said drily. I'd meant it to be amusing, but what flashed across his face looked like relief, to me. What had he thought I expected? "Seriously, Cillian, thank you," I said. "It is good to be clear, from the beginning. I have travelled alone with men, and even in the Empire there can be moments of awkwardness. Shall we go? When we stop at mid-day, I'll give you a lesson with the bow."

The climb grew steeper. At one particularly difficult spot, Cillian went ahead, reaching down to offer me a hand several times. I cursed my frailty silently: I should be good at this. The game trail levelled out, but he stayed ahead of me. He moved with grace, balancing easily on the rocks. Watching him, a memory tugged, but stayed hidden.

Only when we stopped to eat did I realize what that memory was. He'd crouched to open his pack, straightening after finding what he wanted in one fluid move.

"Cillian," I asked, "do you dance?"

"An unusual question to be asked on a mountainside," he observed. "But yes, I do. Why do you ask?"

I had flushed at his tone. "Our potter, Tice, was from Karst, where they dance from earliest childhood. You move like her, a bit."

"Do I? I did not learn from earliest childhood, but from about twelve. Dancing is a necessary ability for what I was ordained to become, by Perras's and the Teannasach's decree." Food in hand, he sat on the grass. I did the same, a comfortable distance away.

"What did you do, in Linrathe? Jordis said you were a student, but that can't be right, can it?"

"Why would you concern yourself with what I did? It is in the past."

"It may be," I answered, ignoring the rebuff, "but we're going to be travelling companions for the gods know how long. We probably should get to know each other, don't you think?"

"If you wish, although I do not see why it matters." He ran a hand through his hair, already unkempt. "Jordis was not incorrect. All ti'achan, even Perras and Dagney, are students for all our lives. But primarily I have been, or rather I was, for a dozen years now, a travelling teacher, to the estates of any Harr or Eirën who wished their nearly-grown sons, or sometimes daughters, to have a winter spent in learning. But that duty was almost an excuse for the second, which was to be a toscaire. An emissary, you would say. I brought news and ideas to the Harr or Eirën, and gathered their thoughts, and the news and rumours they had heard, and took them back to the Ti'acha, and our leaders."

"What sort of ideas?"

"Whether they supported Donnalch for Teannasach, for one, and then after he had been chosen, what their support for his plans were."

"Why didn't you fight?" I asked abruptly.

"Fighting is not required of all men in Linrathe," he said. "Those of us attached to a Ti'ach are exempt, and as a toscaire I had to be seen as impartial, or I would not be trusted with honest thoughts." There is something evasive in his answer, I thought, even though it sounds plausible.

"So, like our young officers, as a—an emissary—you were trained in protocols, in how to behave and act around all ranks of people?"

"Yes. Even to the halls of King Herlief, in Varsland."

"That training wasn't evident the first week or so I knew you." I hadn't planned to say that. "I'm sorry, Cillian," I said. "That was rude."

"As to that, an apology is due you, for the way I treated you when you first came to the Ti'ach, if not for later as well."

"Apology accepted," I said lightly. "But why? Will you tell me that?"

He shook his head. "Not at this moment. It is not something I would have spoken of, except to Perras or Dagney, and I lost that opportunity."

That had sounded honest. We might be together in exile, but that didn't mean we needed to be privy to each other's secrets, or innermost thoughts and feelings. I finished my cheese and oatcakes. "Shall we begin with the bow?"

Teaching Cillian to string the bow went smoothly. I demonstrated the hold, and how to position his hand to draw, and then I asked him to try. His arm pointed down too much. I reached up to adjust it, one hand under his shoulder blade, one on his arm. He flinched, moving away from me.

"You don't like to be touched?" I asked. I'd thought it had been only the idea of sleeping close to me on the boat we'd stolen that had disconcerted him.

"No," he answered. "I do not. But now I expect it, try again."

I kept my touch as light as possible, using fingertips only to position his arm and shoulder. His stance was off, too, I realized. "Cillian," I said. "I need to straighten your body. I'm going to touch you just above your hips. All right?" He nodded. I moved him. "Now, stand there and relax," I said. "You're far too tense."

I'd removed the heads from two arrows, and stood my pack on a boulder for a target. "When you're ready, look at the target, draw, and open the fingers on the string. Don't think, just do it."

I watched him will himself—there was no other word to describe it—into calmness, and shoot. The arrow fell short, but only by a tiny distance. "Try again." I said. I helped him position. This time he hit the pack. I had him shoot a dozen times. He'd done well, for the first time.

I told him so. He just nodded. "Better next time," he said. "Thank you, Lena."

We climbed on. I kept my bow strung; I'd seen several rabbits. The next one I saw fell to my bow. I gutted it quickly, and tied it to my pack. "When you can kill one, I'll teach you to do this, too," I told Cillian.

Mid-afternoon, we reached another wide meadow. "I suggest we camp," Cillian said. "We've come far enough for the first day." I assented, gladly. He went to gather firewood; I searched for water, finding a stream coming down off the mountainside. I filled waterskins, thinking about how to cook the rabbit. We had one pot, two drinking mugs, a spoon each, and our knives. I could stew it, or I could roast it. Stewing was easier.

Cillian proved as adept at building a fire as he said he was, and good with flint and tinder, too. By late afternoon the rabbit bubbled over coals. I'd stretched out on the sparse grass, staring at the sky, wondering if we needed tents tonight. No clouds marred the blue. A gyring speck caught my eye.

"Is that a fuádain?" I asked Cillian, pointing upward at the bird. He was sitting on the other side of the fire.

"Your pronunciation is appalling," he said drily, "but I think it is."

"I didn't exactly have much time for language lessons," I replied. His mockery had been light, and I couldn't find the energy to take offense. "How long have you spoken my language?"

"I began to learn when I was seven," he said. "So, yes, I have somewhat more experience. My comment was unfair."

Had he just apologized? Again? "I didn't take offense," I told him. "Seven? Is that usual?"

"Not usual, no," he said, reluctantly, I thought. "I was sent to the Ti'ach at seven; my grandfather thought it best."

"Then you've been there..." I did the sum in my head, "twenty-six years?"

"I lived there until I was eighteen," he corrected. "Since then, I have stayed occasionally, for differing lengths of time, but never more than a month or two."

"Then where is home? Was home, I suppose I should say."

He didn't reply. I sat up to check the rabbit. Another while, I decided. I didn't want it half-cooked. "It'll be ready in about half an hour," I told Cillian. He nodded.

"Home," he said. "I have been considering. I don't—didn't—have one."

"Nowhere you thought of as home? I haven't lived in Tirvan for three years, but I still think of it as home."

"No. I was welcome at any of the Ti'acha, and at many estates, but none of them were home."

"So exile isn't such a change, for you?"

"I am used to a greater level of physical comfort," he said, "but in some ways, you are correct."

That silenced me. At least he won't be homesick, I thought.

We continued to climb. Half-way through the next day, we reached a place where the game trail we followed began to descend. I could see where it went, along the shoulder of the mountain and onto the next, where it began to climb again. I glanced at the sun. The trail continued eastward, roughly.

We stopped to eat. Afterwards, I gave Cillian his archery lesson. I had to touch him again, to correct his stance; he turned too much to the left, a common error for a right-handed archer. He tolerated it, but I could see that it took effort.

He shot better. "Take a few steps back, and try again," I proposed. Again, he wasn't bad. I retrieved the arrows. "You are picking this up quickly," I told him. "I've taught before, and it usually takes someone longer than this. I—" I started to cough, deep, racking spasms. I bent over, hands on knees, trying to catch my breath. Cillian watched me, frowning. He handed me his waterskin.

"Should we camp?" he asked, as I drank.

"No," I said. "I'm all right. Let's keep going."

But by late afternoon I had to give in. The coughing fits were coming more frequently. At a sheltered spot, Cillian stopped walking. "We're camping here," he told me. I didn't argue. My heart pounded, and my head hurt.

"I haven't hunted," I said, after I'd rested for a while. He was gathering firewood.

"We have dried meat and cheese," he reminded me. "I think you should rest."

"I'll be fine."

"Lena." He put down the wood he carried. "Are you going to always be this stubborn? Or would it help you to know that I also need to rest? I am short of breath and I have a headache. Perhaps we have climbed too fast, forgetting what Galen said. What is our hurry, after all?"

He was, annoyingly, right. "None, I suppose," I said. "I have willow-bark; I can make enough tea for us both, if you wish."

"Not for me," he replied. He built the fire and lit it. I found my bag of remedies, putting a handful of shredded bark into water in the one pot and setting it at the edge of the fire. Cillian came over to me. "What medicine do you have?" he asked. "I should know, in case you are hurt, or ill."

"Not much," I said. "Willow-bark, anash, a salve. Some mint and ginger root. And a very small amount of poppy syrup, all Birel could get me."

"I don't know anash." I showed him the silvery-grey leaves, finely divided. "What is it used for?"

"A tea that helps with the pain I have when I bleed each month," I told him. "It's also supposed to be good for the Eastern Fever, whatever that is. And if it is drunk regularly, it prevents pregnancy."

Surprise showed on his face. "Reliably?"

"In my experience, yes. It isn't used in the north?"

"Not to my knowledge. There is mention of a similar plant in some ancient writings from Casil, but nothing known in Linrathe that I am aware of."

"The Ti'ach had ancient writings from Casil?" I had seen a map, but books?

"Copies, of course," he replied.

"In what language?"

"Casilan. The language of the inscription on Casilla's wall, you will recall."

Casil e imitaran ne. I did remember. "You can read Casilan?"

"Yes. Anyone taught at a Ti'ach can, to some extent. Some of us learn it more thoroughly."

"Can you speak it?"

"In theory. But as no-one has heard it in many hundred years, how I was taught to pronounce the words may have little or no resemblance to how it should actually be spoken."

"If we reach Casil, you might find out," I said.

He actually smiled, a fleeting expression. "Unlikely. But a tantalizing suggestion."

We spent two days at the camp. By the end of the second day, walking was easier, and our headaches had gone. On the first full day, Cillian had wandered around the area, picking up pebbles. "What are you doing?" I had asked.

"Do you play xache?"

"Badly. Why?"

"I am looking for enough differently coloured pebbles to use as a xache set. We will have some long evenings to pass. I thought xache might help."

"I'm not very good," I said. I suspected Cillian played the game well. "Promise me you won't be sarcastic about my play."

"You can get better, if you will let me teach you. Consider it fair exchange for teaching me to use the bow." He paused. "I take promises very seriously, Lena. I will undertake to be gentle with you, about errors, but I would prefer to leave promises to larger matters. Is that acceptable?"

"Of course," I said. I'd used the word casually, but I was beginning to understand that almost nothing was casual with this man.

By the evening, he'd found what he needed. The board proved a problem. We finally drew a grid on bare soil with a twig, and used that. "Xache," Cillian said, "is a game of both tactics and strategy. Tactics are concerned with immediate actions, or those in the short term. Strategy looks at the longer goals, and at setting up the board for those goals, thinking ahead to what your moves will accomplish."

"Casyn told me it teaches leaders to think in terms of acceptable losses," I remembered.

"It does. Among other things. How would you start your game?"

I moved a piece; he moved one of his. I responded. "If you do that," he said, "I can take your piece in the next move. But if you had done this—" he showed me, "then you limit my moves. Do you see?" We tested moves; I explained my thinking, he evaluated and suggested.

"You teach well," I told him.

"And you are a good student; you see patterns. You could be a skilled player, if you choose."

I laughed. "You want me to learn so you have someone to play against," I teased.

He smiled, slightly. "There is some truth in that."

When we left the meadow, we moved more slowly. I'd stopped coughing after the first rest day, but I'd learned my lesson. We were deeper into the mountains now, but from the highest vantage points, all we could see were endless ridges and folds extending ahead of us, seemingly forever. "Did any of the maps show how wide the Durrains were?" I asked Cillian, as we stood looking eastward.

"Not that I remember." I'd asked him one or two similar questions, and I could recognize now the distant look in his eyes when he was thinking. He shook his head, looking frustrated. "I can't be sure," he said.

Over the days, I'd come to realize how self-disciplined he was, almost to the point of asceticism. He ate sparingly, less than I thought he should, and only relaxed when his self-imposed tasks, whether building our nightly fire or practicing with the bow, were completed. I guessed he had admitted to physical strain on the second day only to encourage me to rest.

But where failure on his part irritated him; failure on mine was met by quiet patience, and usually by a different approach to the problem. This was most obvious in our xache lessons, but he also told me stories in the evenings, usually of long-past battles, and asked me what I would have done, had I been a commander. A different sort of game. I realized he had imposed a definition on our relationship, at least while in camp: he was treating me as I guessed he had his students.

He squatted, pushing aside some broken rock to clear a path of earth. With the sharp edge of one stone, he sketched a map in the soil. "If the proportions of the map were correct," he said, "then the mountains here were shown as very wide." He sketched them in. "But that was only one map. Another one—it was older, and I have only seen it once or twice—had them perhaps half that width. So, truthfully, Lena, I don't know."

I looked eastward again. "These next peaks look higher," I observed. Snow lay on the peaks and slopes. I hoped we didn't need to go that high. We followed trails made by a goat-like creature, mostly. The goat-deer, as we'd christened them, dark, horned animals with pale faces, were too large for our bows; we ate mountain hare and a fat, squirrel-like creature that lived among the rocks, and the occasional grouse. Cillian could hunt the rock squirrels now; they moved slowly, and were not afraid of us, making them easy targets. I'd taught him how to gut and skin them, too, and he did it competently. If I did fall down a mountainside and die, he had a fair chance of surviving without me.

"Shall we keep going?" he said. We began to descend, Cillian in the lead. We clambered over some boulders, and he stopped. I came up beside him. Ahead of us lay an open area, steeply sloping and covered with flat rocks about the size of my hand, piled on top of each other like the stones of a shingle beach. The trail ran, faintly, across the slope.

"I don't like the look of that," I murmured.

"Neither do I," he replied. He looked up. Above us the rocky side of the mountain rose in jagged pinnacles. "But I don't see a lot of choice."

I looked down the slope. The rocks ended far below us at the edge of a valley. If we could get down there, I thought, we could walk along that edge—but then we'd have to climb back up. "What about going down?"

"Won't the rocks slide more if we go down them?"

"Yes," I said reluctantly. "They probably will."

I stepped forward. The rocks gave a little, slipping beneath my feet, but only slightly. I dug my heels and my stick in with every step. Slowly we moved further out onto the slope. "A bit like walking on a snowy hillside," Cillian said from behind me.

"Mmm," I agreed, concentrating on my footing. I kept my eyes on my feet and the trail, occasionally looking forward to gauge our progress. I stepped forward, and the rocks beneath my foot gave. I dug the walking stick in as my left leg slid down the slope. Shoving my heels down, I tried to keep my balance. Canted towards the hillside, my right knee almost touching the rocks, I came to a stop. Rocks bounced down the slope and into the valley below.

Cillian grabbed my right arm, and with his help I got myself upright again. I stood panting, waiting for my pounding heart to slow. "Thank you," I said after a minute.

"Ready?" he asked. We began to walk again. The rocks did not slide again, and after a few minutes I regained most of my confidence.

"Lena!" I turned to see Cillian, down on his side, sliding, the rocks beneath him flowing like water. I scanned the slope. Below him, to his right, a small tree held precariously to the rock.

"On your right!" I screamed. "A tree! Try to grab it!"

He looked, saw the tree, and twisted his body, reaching out. I saw him grab the tree. It bent almost parallel with the slope, exposing a root. Cillian got his other hand on the trunk, rocks bouncing and clattering around him. The tree held.

Cillian lay on his stomach, both arms over his head. He wriggled upwards slightly, then half-turned his body, digging one heel in, edging into a half-seated, half-prone position. Holding the tree with one hand, he used the other to help push himself up the slope until he was above the tree, his legs on either side of it. Then he looked up.

"Are you all right?" I shouted.

"My left ankle is hurt," he shouted back. "Possibly broken, but I don't believe so."

I swore. "I'm coming down," I shouted. I lined myself up with Cillian and the tree, then sat down, my knees bent. "Don't look up!" I called. A deep breath, and I pushed off with both hands.

A couple of seconds later I realized I should have put my gloves on: nicks and scrapes on my hands already stung. Ignoring that, I controlled my slide as best I could, conscious of Cillian, directly in my path. I splayed my body out as I slid towards him, hoping to slow my trajectory. "Behind you!" I warned him, and twisted to curl my body around his.

We both wrapped around the tree, shielding our heads as rocks bounced around us. I sat up first, hitching my way uphill to let Cillian get up. I could see him control a wince as he pushed himself back into a sitting position.

"Let me see," I said. I edged down below him. "I have to touch you," I warned him. I unlaced his boot, easing it off. My fingers explored his ankle. "Move it?" He did. "Not broken," I concluded. "But it will need rest. Stay here."

"Where would I go?"

I slid down the last part of the rockfall to the edge of the valley. There was no path, but we could walk along it. We needed to reach a spot where we could camp for several days, one close to water and preferably sheltered. "Cillian?" I called back to him. "I'm going to scout out a camp. Get your boot back on and lace it as tightly as you can, to keep the swelling down. If you can edge down to the bottom, where I am, do it. I won't be long, I hope."

I followed the valley edge. It began to slope downward, widening into a shallow bowl. A stream trickled along one side. This would do.

Cillian had managed to manoeuvre down the slope, when I returned. "Can you get up?" I asked.

"I lost my walking stick. I can't do it without one." I gave him mine. He pushed himself to his feet. I grasped his upper arm to steady him.

"Lean on me," I told him.

"I'll unbalance you."

"And if you fall? Who's being stubborn now?"

He grimaced, but he placed one hand on my shoulder. It took a long time to reach the place I had found, and his face was white and drawn by the time we did.

"Fire first, so I can make willow-bark tea," I told him. "Then I'll see to your ankle." I gathered enough wood to boil water. With the pot heating, I knelt beside him. He'd taken off his boot. I could see swelling, and the beginning of discolouration. From my pack, I took the cloth I used to dry myself after washing. I tore several strips from it, and found the salve. I began to rub it in, gently.

"Lena," Cillian said, "I would prefer to do that myself."

I handed him the pot. "Fine. But at least be practical, and let me bind the sprain."

He allowed it. I poured him tea, and left the pot close. "I am going to find more wood," I told him, "and something to eat. I'll pitch the tents when I return, if we think we need them."

I'd got used to sharing camp chores. The length of time it all took surprised me. But we ate grouse while the sky still held some light. The fire had burned to coals, but I would build it up again, before we slept.

"I trust," I said to Cillian, as I tended the fire, "you can manage to relieve yourself, without help?" I had cut a second walking stick for him.

"I trust so, too," he said, proving it a bit later by making his clearly painful way to privacy.

"No more tea," he said on returning.

"You need to drink, though," I replied. "Tea or water, but something. My mother always said it helped the body heal."

"You did not want to be a healer, Lena?" he asked. I looked up, surprised. It was the first personal question I could remember.

"No. I need to be outdoors, moving, doing something. Healers are too constrained, and there are always people demanding attention."

"As I am, right now. I apologize. I should have been more careful."

"It was an accident. I slipped, not long before," I pointed out. "Don't be so hard on yourself. You are only human."

"That," he said, with a quirk of his lips, "is not universally agreed. But I am trying."

"In both senses of the word," I said. Had he really just made a joke against himself?

"I am sure." He sounded serious.

"I was teasing, Cillian," I said. "I do actually like you, you know." I did, unexpectedly. He was odd, frequently stiff and distant, but his patience and constancy, and the respect he had earned from me for his self-discipline, were winning me over.

"I doubt I am worth liking," he said, "but thank you."

"You saved my life," I said sharply.

"That may be worth gratitude. Not necessarily liking."

"Why diminish yourself? Why shouldn't I like you?"

"You do not know me, Lena. What I have been, and done."

"You aren't giving me much chance to know you, are you?" I shoved another branch into the pyramid of wood I had built. My annoyance with him was increasing.

"No," he said. "I'm not." He sighed. "I am not an easy man to know, Lena. Nor to like, although you profess to. Personal conversation is discouraged, for toscairen. Reticence has become a habit, reticence, and cynicism, I am told. I am not proud of some of what I have done, both for Linrathe, and for myself, in the past, and that colours my outlook. But I am attempting to learn to move away from old habits, of thought and reaction. A fresh start, as it were, if one can do that at my age."

I sat back on my heels. "That's better," I said. "You've told me something honest." I glanced at the sky. "It's going to be cold tonight, I think. It's hard to believe it's summer, up here."

"I cannot take my turns with the fire. I'm sorry." He generally added wood at least once in the night; I did too, if it burned low when I woke.

"Don't worry. If you're cold, wake me."

Stars gleamed above me, thousands of them. I got up to add wood to the fire. I heard a sharp intake of breath, almost a gasp, from Cillian. "Are you all right?" I asked.

"Yes," he answered. "I stretched in my sleep, I think."

"I can make more tea."

"Don't bother. The pain is receding."

I went to him, placing my fingers on his ankle. Even through the wrapping, it felt hot. I moved my fingers up a little, checking to see if the inflammation had spread. "You're cold," I told him.

"A bit. But the fire is high again."

"I can sleep beside you. We've done it before." Reluctantly, on a small boat in the sea. It had kept me, and probably both of us, alive.

"I'll be all right."

"If you say so." I went back to my blankets. Why was he like this? Did he not trust himself, if I slept beside him? I realized I was making an assumption: I didn't even know if he was attracted to women. Or maybe he knew about Maya, and that made me repulsive to him. Stop thinking about it, I told myself. Go to sleep.

Four days passed. I hunted; we played xache, and I always lost, but it took more moves, now. Afterwards, we analyzed my play, Cillian showing me that I tended to risk too many pieces in my attempts to capture his queen. I might take that key piece, he pointed out, but lose the game.

On the first full day at this camp, I'd killed a kid of the goat-deer. Staying here for a few days, I could smoke the meat, and I had a use for the skin. "If I cut a square from the hide," I told Cillian, "and keep it weighted as it dries, it will shrink and go hard. If it works, we can draw a xache board on it."

He looked impressed. "A fine idea," he said. "Well done."

"Wait to see if it works," I told him.

We ate roasted kid, and a few early berries from a spreading ground plant. I recognized its small red fruit as edible. As I ate, I felt a familiar drag in my groin. I'd been expecting it: the moon had been full, a night or two earlier. "Do you want willow-bark?" I asked, digging into my pack.

"No. Just the salve. I dislike drugs, unless absolutely necessary."

"Just tea for me, then."

"Are you unwell?"

"No. Just my bleeding time. I think I told you I am in pain, the first couple of days." He nodded, apparently unperturbed. He is thirty-three, I thought, watching him rub salve into his ankle. He must have known enough women for this to be just part of life. I'd had to explain to Garth, but he'd been eighteen, and raised away from women.

As if he felt my eyes on him, Cillian looked up. "Some time ago," he said, "you asked me why I was so unpleasant to you, at the Ti'ach. You deserve an answer."

"Only if you want to tell me," I replied. Why now?

"I do," he said. "I told you I am not easy to know. But there was one man with whom I was comfortable, a son of one of the Eirën, but not by his wife. Alain was born to one of the torpari women, but he had been acknowledged and, unusually, accepted. We flew falcons together, and talked of ideas, and he did not care I had no father. The day you came to the Ti'ach," Cillian went on, "one of your escort brought me a letter, telling me Alain had died of wounds received weeks earlier, from a battle near the Wall."

"No-one told me," I said.

"They didn't know," he said quietly. "I might have told Perras, or Dagney, I think, but with your arrival, it wasn't the right time. Perras was so excited about Colm's book. I never did tell them, in the end; nothing could be changed, after all."

I remembered something. "Is that why you...went away? Rode somewhere, I think?"

He gave me a questioning look. "Yes."

"It's what I would have done," I explained. "Or gone out on my boat, alone on the sea, if I'd been at home. I understand: an Empire's soldier was the last person you needed to see, just then."

"Nor did I want to ride north with Donnalch, as it was his war that had killed Alain. But it was what I had to do, although I made my dislike of it more than clear."

"Cillian," I said, caught in the intimacy of the moment, "I may transgress here—but was he more than a friend?"

"Not Alain, no." He didn't seem to mind the question. "I am not even sure I would have used the word friend, until I knew he was dead. It is not a relationship I think of as applying to me."

I could think of nothing to say. With another man, I might have offered an embrace. "I know what it is to lose a friend," I said finally. "I'm sorry, Cillian."

"That is kind of you, Lena," he replied. "Especially since it was I who was explaining my behaviour."

"At least you weren't responsible for his death."

He frowned, studying me. "Were you, for your friend's?"

"Yes. She was my cohort-second, at Tirvan. I ordered her back on patrol when she was upset about something, and she was killed. I should have known better."

"You see that as your fault?"

"My responsibility. Tice was angry at something that had changed her life, and during the invasion she had confronted the source of that anger. I think it blinded her to danger, and she didn't hear the man who killed her."

"Did she not also have a responsibility to control herself, to put anger aside to do her job?" He didn't sound judgmental, but rather the teacher again, offering a differing viewpoint.

"Yes," I admitted. "But what I should have known is that she couldn't, and therefore I should have ordered her off duty. That is where I failed."

"Anger can be very hard to let go," he said, softly. "The philosophy I attempt to adhere to, as explained in the Contemplations of Catilius, an Emperor of the East whose writings we know, says to be angry at something means you have forgotten that everything that happens is natural. But I could not believe that Alain's death was natural, and that it was my reaction to it that was at fault. We are here in part because my volition to act rationally failed. All we can do, Lena, is learn from our mistakes, and not let it happen again."

"Like xache? Life isn't that simple," I snapped. "My turn to apologize," I said immediately. "I'm irritable, because I'm in pain. When the tea works, I'll be human again."

I made tea again before bed, and the next morning.

"You are in pain every time?" Cillian asked, watching me.

"Every time, for a couple of days." He might as well know what to expect. "Except if I drink anash every day," I added, "and I don't have enough to do that for more than a few months. Nor was my mother sure it was safe to use for a long time."

"But you have, or you would not know its effects," he observed.

"Yes. We all did, in Tirvan, when the invasion drew close. Probably in other villages, too. A precaution, against what might happen."

"I see," he said. "Wise, under the circumstances."

"Yes," I said briefly. I didn't really want to discuss this. "Look, Cillian, I might as well be blunt." I said. "I will have to wash cloths, and myself, frequently, for a few days. I know from Jordis that this is very private, in Linrathe. I will be as discreet as I can be, and I apologize if you are made uncomfortable."

"I would just say tell me when you are going to bathe," he said, "but I am rather constrained, for now." Both of us preferred to be clean. We washed every couple of days, alerting each other beforehand for privacy.

"I will find a place out of your sight," I said.

"Did you know," he said, "that some ancient scholars thought women could control the weather, during their bleeding? And destroy insects in fields of grain, just by walking around the field?"

"Seriously?"

"It is what they wrote. Whether or not they actually believed it is another matter."

"I wish I'd known that, a time or two fishing. I wonder what I would have had to do, to control the squalls?"

"Strip off your clothes, I believe," Cillian said. "I remember you getting the boat under control in those gusts of winds. Would you have just stopped that frantic action, to undress?"

"Very practical advice," I said, laughing. Any discomfort I had felt discussing my bleeding with him, had disappeared. Probably his intent, I realized. "Did they really write that, or did you just make it up?"

"Oh, there's more," he said. "Cures for mad dogs, and diseases, and tarnishing metal. Very powerful, a woman is, at this time." I'd never seen more than a fleeting smile before. Now he looked truly amused.

"I thought these ancient writers were full of wisdom?"

"They can be. But in some cases, the writings are full of ridiculous ideas, as I have just described." He started to laugh. "As a boy, the people with no heads and eyes on their chests gave me nightmares."

I tried to imagine. "I can see why." Laughter changed him, relaxing his usually austere aspect. "Cillian," I said. "I've never seen you laugh before."

"I don't, often," he said. "Mostly with Alain. And there hasn't been much to laugh about, since. But this morning—you are very different than Linrathan women, Lena, open and unbothered by what is natural. I could not have said what I just told you to any other woman I have known; she would have been horrified that such things were written. But you were just amused."

"When you live with only women, most of the year," I said, oddly pleased, "of course it's just natural. But not all Empire's men are comfortable with the process, either."

"No? That surprises me."

"Should it? After all, they live apart from us from the time they're seven. I don't know how they learn about a woman's cycle. If it coincides with Festival, women just don't participate. I wouldn't be surprised if some men never know."

"I had not thought of that."

"I had to explain it, to Garth," I said. He looked at me questioningly. "Garth was at Tirvan, during the invasion." No need to go into the complex detail. "Afterwards, he and I rode south. I was taking word of Tice's death to her village, and he had an obligation to meet, in the same village. We were together for a couple of months."

"Not just as travelling companions, I think?" Cillian asked. Fair enough, I thought. I'd asked him about Alain.

"Not just."

"May I ask you something else?" His voice was hesitant.

"You can." I couldn't lament his lack of openness, and then be reticent myself.

"How old are you, Lena?"

Not what I had expected. "Are we past midsummer? We must be."

"Yes, by a few weeks now."

"Then I'm twenty," I answered.

"Two years adult?"

"Three, in the Empire, for women. Why?"

"I was just thinking about what I was doing, in those early years of adulthood. Travelling, teaching, learning." An odd inflection, on the last word. "Not so different than you, if you exclude fighting."

"A large exclusion," I said. "But I see your point. We have both—wandered."

"Good training, for what we are doing now."

"Mmm." I wanted to go back to an earlier part of the conversation. "Cillian, I think I may have given you the wrong idea."

"About?"

"Garth and me. We were lovers, yes, for a short while. And I cared for him. But it was his sister, Maya, who was my partner, on the boat, and in life. I loved her. I know that is—not accepted, in Linrathe, and if it bothers you, I won't talk about it again. But," I shrugged. "I thought you should know."

"Maya chose to leave Tirvan, rather than fight? Jordis told me," he added, at my look of surprise.

"Yes. Garth and I went to look for her, afterwards."

"Did you find her?"

"Yes. She wanted nothing to do with me, then and again later, because I'd fought."

"Why did you think your relationship would bother me?" He sounded genuinely curious, not asking a question to begin a teaching dialogue.

"Someone told me such relationships were not accepted, in Linrathe."

"At the torps, you are right. Is that where you were?" I nodded. "But at the Ti'acha, we take a wider view, understanding that men and women are not all the same in how they desire."

"More wisdom from the ancients?"

"In part, yes."

"And you, Cillian?" I asked suddenly. "Women? Men? Both?"

He was silent. "The answer to that is not simple," he said finally. "Women, once. Men—no, with one possible exception, unexplored. That broke a heart, I believe, which I regret. But neither, by choice, for some years."

"By choice?"

"Yes. The reasons for which I will not share, Lena. Not at this time, and likely never."

"Is that why you don't like to be touched?"

"Largely, yes."

"I'm glad you told me," I said. "It's easier, when I understand at least a little. I have no need to know more." I studied him. "But it's annoying, too."

"In what way?"

"I like you more every time we talk. And I am used to touching people I like, affectionately. Remembering not to will be hard. You will forgive me, if I transgress, sometimes?"

"I will forgive the occasional touch, if you do your best to not make it a habit," he said. "Has your pain gone?"

"It has. I should get water, and hunt, and then we can play xache."