Chapter no 26: Lanre Turned

The Name of the Wind

HAD BEEN IN Tarbean for years at this point. Three birthdays had slipped by unnoticed and I was just past fifteen. I knew how to survive Waterside. I had become an accomplished beggar and thief. Locks and pockets opened to my touch. I knew which pawnshops bought goods “from uncle” with no questions asked.

I was still ragged and frequently hungry, but I was in no real danger of starving. I had been slowly building my rainy-day money. Even after a hard winter that had frequently forced me to pay for a warm spot to sleep, my hoard was over twenty iron pennies. It was like a dragon’s treasure to me.

I had grown comfortable there. But aside from the desire to add to my rainy-day money I had nothing to live for. Nothing driving me. Nothing to look forward to. My days were spent looking for things to steal and ways to entertain myself.

But that had changed a few days earlier in Trapis’ basement. I had heard a young girl speaking in an awed voice about a storyteller who spent all his time in a Dockside bar called the Half-Mast. Apparently, every sixth bell he told a story. Any story you asked for, he knew. What’s more, she said that he had a bet going. If he didn’t know your story, he would give you a whole talent.

I thought about what the girl had said for the rest of the day. I doubted it was true, but I couldn’t help thinking about what I could do with a whole silver talent. I could buy shoes, and maybe a knife, give money to Trapis, and still double my rainy-day fund.

Even if the girl was lying about the bet, I was still interested. Entertainment was hard to come by on the streets. Occasionally some ragamuffin troupe would mum a play on a street corner or I’d hear a fiddler in a pub. But most real entertainment cost money, and my hard-won pennies were too precious to squander.

But there was a problem. Dockside wasn’t safe for me.

I should explain. More than a year before, I had seen Pike walking down the street. It had been the first time I’d seen him since my first day in Tarbean when he and his friends had jumped me in that alley and destroyed my

father’s lute.

I followed him carefully for the better part of a day, keeping my distance and staying in the shadows. Eventually he went home to a little box alley Dockside where he had his own version of my secret place. His was a nest of broken crates he had cobbled together to keep the weather off.

I perched on the roof all night, waiting until he left the next morning. Then I made my way down to his nest of crates and looked around. It was cozy, filled with the accumulated small possessions of several years. He had a bottle of beer, which I drank. There was also half a cheese that I ate, and a shirt that I stole, as it was slightly less raggedy than my own.

Further searching revealed various odds and ends, a candle, a ball of string, some marbles. Most surprising were several pieces of sailcloth with charcoal drawings of a woman’s face. I had to search for nearly ten minutes until I found what I was really looking for. Hidden away behind everything else was a small wooden box that showed signs of much handling. It held a bundle of dried violets tied with a white ribbon, a toy horse that had lost most of its string mane, and a lock of curling blond hair.

It took me several minutes with flint and steel to get the fire going. The violets were good tinder and soon greasy clouds of smoke were billowing high into the air. I stood by and watched as everything Pike loved went up in flames.

But I stayed too long, savoring the moment. Pike and a friend came running down the box alley, drawn by the smoke, and I was trapped. Furious, Pike jumped me. He was taller by six inches and outweighed me by fifty pounds. Worse, he had a piece of broken glass wrapped with twine at one end, making a crude knife.

He stabbed me once in the thigh right above my knee before I smashed his hand into the cobblestones, shattering the knife. After that he still gave me a black eye and several broken ribs before I managed to kick him squarely between the legs and get free. As I pelted away he limped after me, shouting that he would kill me for what I’d done.

I believed him. After patching up my leg, I took every bit of rainy-day money I had saved and bought five pints of dreg, a cheap, foul liquor strong enough to blister the inside of your mouth. Then I limped into Dockside and waited for Pike and his friends to spot me.

It didn’t take long, I let him and two of his friends follow me for half a mile, past Seamling Lane and into Tallows. I kept to the main roads, knowing they wouldn’t dare attack me in broad daylight when people were around.

But when I darted into a side alley, they hurried to catch up, suspecting I was trying to make a run for it. However, when they turned the corner no one was there.

Pike thought to look up just as I was pouring the bucket of dreg onto him

from the edge of the low roof above. It doused him, splashing across his face and chest. He screamed and clutched at his eyes as he went to his knees. Then I struck the phosphorus match I’d stolen, and dropped it onto him, watching it sputter and flare as it fell.

Full of the pure, hard hatred of a child, I hoped he would burst into a pillar of flame. He didn’t, but did catch fire. He screamed again and staggered around while his friends swatted at him, trying to put him out. I left while they were busy.

It had been over a year ago and I hadn’t seen Pike since. He hadn’t tried to find me, and I had stayed well clear of Dockside, sometimes going miles out of my way rather than pass near it. It was a kind of truce. However, I didn’t doubt that Pike and his friends remembered what I looked like, and were willing to settle the score if they spotted me.

After thinking it over, I decided it was too dangerous. Even the promise of free stories and a chance at a silver talent wasn’t worth stirring things up with Pike again. Besides, what story would I ask for?

The question rolled around in my head for the next few days. What story would I ask for? I jostled up against a dockworker and was cuffed away before I could get my hand all the way into his pocket. What story? I begged on the street corner opposite the Tehlin church. What story? I stole three loaves of bread and took two of them down to Trapis as a gift. What story?

Then, as I lay on the rooftops in my secret place where three roofs met, it came to me just as I was about to drift off to sleep. Lanre. Of course. I could ask him for the real story of Lanre. The story my father had been….

My heart stuttered in my chest as I suddenly remembered things I had avoided for years: my father idly strumming at his lute, my mother beside him in the wagon, singing. Reflexively, I began to draw away from the memories, the way you might pull your hand back from a fire.

But I was surprised to find these memories held only a gentle ache, not the deep pain I expected. Instead I found a small, budding excitement at the thought of hearing a story my father would have sought out. A story he himself might have told.

Still, I knew it to be sheer folly to go running Dockside for the sake of a story. All the hard practicality Tarbean had taught me over the years urged me to stay in my familiar corner of the world, where I was safe….

The first thing I saw on entering the Half-Mast was Skarpi. He was sitting on a tall stool at the bar, an old man with eyes like diamonds and the body of a driftwood scarecrow. He was thin and weathered with thick white hair on his arms and face and head. The whiteness of it stood out from his deep brown tan, making him seem splashed with wave foam.

At his feet were a group of twenty children, some few my age, most younger. They were a strange mix to see, ranging from grubby, shoeless urchins like myself, to reasonably well-dressed, well-scrubbed children who probably had parents and homes.

None of them looked familiar to me, but I never knew who might be a friend of Pike’s. I found a place near the door with my back to the wall and sank down onto my haunches.

Skarpi cleared his throat once or twice in a way that made me thirsty. Then, with ritual significance, he looked mournfully into the clay mug that sat in front of him and carefully turned it upside down on the bar.

The children surged forward, pressing coins onto the bar. I did a quick count: two iron halfpennies, nine shims, and a drab. Altogether, just a little over three iron pennies in Commonwealth coin. Maybe he was no longer offering the silver talent bet. More likely the rumor I’d heard was wrong.

The old man nodded almost imperceptibility to the bartender. “Fallows Red.” His voice was deep and rough, almost hypnotic. The bald man behind the bar gathered up the coins and deftly poured wine into Skarpi’s wide clay cup.

“So, what would everyone like to hear about today?” Skarpi rumbled. His deep voice rolling out like distant thunder.

There was a moment of silence that again struck me as ritualistic, almost reverent. Then a babble burst forth from all the children at once.

“I want a faerie story!”

“…Oren and the fight at Mnat’s…”

“Yes, Oren Velciter! The one with Baron…” “Lartam…”

“Myr Tariniel!” “Illien and the Bear!”

“Lanre,” I said, almost without meaning to.

The room went still again as Skarpi took a drink. The children watched him with a familiar intensity I couldn’t quite identify.

Skarpi sat calmly in the middle of the quiet. “Did I,” his voice rolled out slowly, like dark honey, “hear someone say Lanre?” He looked directly at me, his blue eyes clear and sharp.

I nodded, not knowing what to expect.

“I want to hear about the dry lands over the Stormwal,” one of the younger girls complained. “About the sand snakes that come out of the ground like sharks. And the dry men who hide under the dunes and drink your blood instead of water. And—” She was cuffed quickly into silence from a dozen different directions by the children surrounding her.

Silence fell sharply as Skarpi took another drink. Watching the children as they watched Skarpi, I realized what they reminded me of: a person anxiously

watching a clock. I guessed that when the old man’s drink was gone, the story he told would be over as well.

Skarpi took another drink, no more than a sip this time, then set his cup down and pivoted on his stool to face us. “Who would like to hear the story of a man who lost his eye and gained a better sight?”

Something about the tone of his voice or the reaction of the other children told me this was a purely rhetorical question. “So, Lanre and the Creation War. An old, old story.” His eyes swept over the children. “Sit and listen for I will speak of the shining city as it once was, years and miles away….”

Once, years and miles away, there was Myr Tariniel. The shining city. It sat among the tall mountains of the world like a gem on the crown of a king.

Imagine a city as large as Tarbean, but on every corner of every street there was a bright fountain, or a green tree growing, or a statue so beautiful it would make a proud man cry to look at it. The buildings were tall and graceful, carved from the mountain itself, carved of a bright white stone that held the sun’s light long after evening fell.

Selitos was lord over Myr Tariniel. Just by looking at a thing Selitos could see its hidden name and understand it. In those days there were many who could do such things, but Selitos was the most powerful namer of anyone alive in that age.

Selitos was well loved by the people he protected. His judgments were strict and fair, and none could sway him through falsehood or dissembling. Such was the power of his sight that he could read the hearts of men like heavy-lettered books.

Now in those days there was a terrible war being fought across a vast empire. The war was called the Creation War, and the empire was called Ergen. And despite the fact that the world has never seen an empire as grand or a war so terrible, both of them only live in stories now. Even history books that mentioned them as doubtful rumor have long since crumbled into dust.

The war had lasted so long that folk could hardly remember a time when the sky wasn’t dark with the smoke of burning towns. Once there had been hundreds of proud cities scattered through the empire. Now there were merely ruins littered with the bodies of the dead. Famine and plague were everywhere, and in some places there was such despair that mothers could no longer muster enough hope to give their children names. But eight cities remained. They were Belen, Antus, Vaeret, Tinusa, Emlen, and the twin cities of Murilla and Murella. Last was Myr Tariniel, greatest of them all and the only one unscarred by the long centuries of war. It was protected by the mountains and brave soldiers. But the true cause of Myr Tariniel’s peace was Selitos. Using the power of his sight he kept watch over the mountain passes

leading to his beloved city. His rooms were in the city’s highest towers so he could see any attack long before it came to be a threat.

The other seven cities, lacking Selitos’ power, found their safety elsewhere. They put their trust in thick walls, in stone and steel. They put their trust in strength of arm, in valor and bravery and blood. And so they put their trust in Lanre.

Lanre had fought since he could lift a sword, and by the time his voice began to crack he was the equal of a dozen older men. He married a woman named Lyra, and his love for her was a passion fiercer than fury.

Lyra was terrible and wise, and held a power just as great as his. For while Lanre had the strength of his arm and the command of loyal men, Lyra knew the names of things, and the power of her voice could kill a man or still a thunderstorm.

As the years passed, Lanre and Lyra fought side by side. They defended Belen from a surprise attack, saving the city from a foe that should have overwhelmed them. They gathered armies and made the cities recognize the need for allegiance. Over the long years they pressed the empire’s enemies back. People who had grown numb with despair began to feel warm hope kindling inside. They hoped for peace, and they hung those flickering hopes on Lanre.

Then came the Blac of Drossen Tor. Blac meant ‘battle’ in the language of the time, and at Drossen Tor there was the largest and most terrible battle of this large and terrible war. They fought unceasing for three days in the light of the sun, and for three nights unceasing by the light of the moon. Neither side could defeat the other, and both were unwilling to retreat.

Of the battle itself I have only one thing to say. More people died at Drossen Tor than there are living in the world today.

Lanre was always where the fight was thickest, where he was needed most. His sword never left his hand or rested in its sheath. At the very end of things, covered in blood amid a field of corpses, Lanre stood alone against a terrible foe. It was a great beast with scales of black iron, whose breath was a darkness that smothered men. Lanre fought the beast and killed it. Lanre brought victory to his side, but he bought it with his life.

After the battle was finished and the enemy was set beyond the doors of stone, survivors found Lanre’s body, cold and lifeless near the beast he had slain. Word of Lanre’s death spread quickly, covering the field like a blanket of despair. They had won the battle and turned the tide of the war, but each of them felt cold inside. The small flame of hope that each of them cherished began to flicker and fade. Their hopes had hung on Lanre, and Lanre was dead.

In the midst of silence Lyra stood by Lanre’s body and spoke his name. Her voice was a commandment. Her voice was steel and stone. Her voice told

him to live again. But Lanre lay motionless and dead.

In the midst of fear Lyra knelt by Lanre’s body and breathed his name. Her voice was a beckoning. Her voice was love and longing. Her voice called him to live again. But Lanre lay cold and dead.

In the midst of despair Lyra fell across Lanre’s body and wept his name. Her voice was a whisper. Her voice was echo and emptiness. Her voice begged him to live again. But Lanre lay breathless and dead.

Lanre was dead. Lyra wept brokenly and touched his face with trembling hands. All around men turned their heads, because the bloody field was less horrible to look upon than Lyra’s grief.

But Lanre heard her calling. Lanre turned at the sound of her voice and came to her. From beyond the doors of death Lanre returned. He spoke her name and took Lyra in his arms to comfort her. He opened his eyes and did his best to wipe away her tears with shaking hands. And then he drew a deep and living breath.

The survivors of the battle saw Lanre move and they marveled. The flickering hope for peace each of them had nurtured for so long flared like hot fire inside them.

“Lanre and Lyra!” they shouted, their voices like thunder. “Our lord’s love is stronger than death! Our lady’s voice has called him back! Together they have beaten death! Together, how can we help but be victorious?”

So the war continued, but with Lanre and Lyra fighting side by side the future seemed less grim. Soon everyone knew the story of how Lanre had died, and how his love and Lyra’s power had drawn him back. For the first time in living memory people could speak openly of peace without being seen as fools or madmen.

Years passed. The empire’s enemies grew thin and desperate and even the most cynical of men could see the end of the war was drawing swiftly near.

Then rumors began to spread: Lyra was ill. Lyra had been kidnapped. Lyra had died. Lanre had fled the empire. Lanre had gone mad. Some even said Lanre had killed himself and gone searching for his wife in the land of the dead. There were stories aplenty, but no one knew the truth of things.

In the midst of these rumors, Lanre arrived in Myr Tariniel. He came alone, wearing his silver sword and haubergeon of black iron scales. His armor fit him closely as a second skin of shadow. He had wrought it from the carcass of the beast he had killed at Drossen Tor.

Lanre asked Selitos to walk with him outside the city. Selitos agreed, hoping to learn the truth of Lanre’s trouble and offer him what comfort a friend can give. They often kept each other’s council, for they were both lords among their people.

Selitos had heard the rumors, and he was worried. He feared for Lyra’s health, but more he feared for Lanre. Selitos was wise. He understood how

grief can twist a heart, how passions drive good men to folly.

Together they walked the mountain paths. Lanre leading the way, they came to a high place in the mountains where they could look out over the land. The proud towers of Myr Tariniel shone brightly in the last light of the setting sun.

After a long time Selitos said, “I have heard terrible rumors concerning your wife.”

Lanre said nothing, and from his silence Selitos knew that Lyra was dead.

After another long pause Selitos tried again. “Though I do not know the whole of the matter, Myr Tariniel is here for you, and I will lend whatever aid a friend can give.”

“You have given me enough, old friend.” Lanre turned and placed his hand on Selitos’ shoulder. “Silanxi, I bind you. By the name of stone, be still as stone. Aeruh, I command the air. Lay leaden on your tongue. Selitos, I name you. May all your powers fail you but your sight.”

Selitos knew that in all the world there were only three people who could match his skill in names: Aleph, Iax, and Lyra. Lanre had no gift for names— his power lay in the strength of his arm. For him to attempt to bind Selitos by his name would be as fruitless as a boy attacking a soldier with a willow stick. Nevertheless, Lanre’s power lay on him like a great weight, like a vise of iron, and Selitos found himself unable to move or speak. He stood, still as

stone and could do nothing but marvel: how had Lanre come by such power? In confusion and despair, Selitos watched night settle in the mountains.

With horror he saw that some of the encroaching blackness was, in fact, a great army moving upon Myr Tariniel. Worse still, no warning bells were ringing. Selitos could only stand and watch as the army crept closer in secret.

Myr Tariniel was burned and butchered, the less that is said of it the better. The white walls were charred black and the fountains ran with blood. For a night and a day Selitos stood helpless beside Lanre and could do nothing more than watch and listen to the screams of the dying, the ring of iron, the crack of breaking stone.

When the next day dawned on the blackened towers of the city, Selitos found he could move. He turned to Lanre and this time his sight did not fail him. He saw in Lanre a great darkness and a troubled spirit. But Selitos still felt the fetters of enchantment binding him. Fury and puzzlement warred within him, and he spoke. “Lanre, what have you done?”

Lanre continued to look out over the ruins of Myr Tariniel. His shoulders stooped as though he bore a great weight. There was a weariness in his voice when he spoke. “Was I accounted a good man, Selitos?”

“You were counted among the best of us. We considered you beyond reproach.”

“Yet I did this.”

Selitos could not bring himself to look upon his ruined city. “Yet you did this,” he agreed. “Why?”

Lanre paused. “My wife is dead. Deceit and treachery brought me to it, but her death is on my hands.” He swallowed and turned to look out over the land.

Selitos followed his eyes. From the vantage high in the mountains he saw plumes of dark smoke rising from the land below. Selitos knew with certainty and horror that Myr Tariniel was not the only city that had been destroyed. Lanre’s allies had brought about the ruin of the last bastions of the empire.

Lanre turned. “And I counted among the best.” Lanre’s face was terrible to look upon. Grief and despair had ravaged it. “I, considered wise and good, did all this!” He gestured wildly. “Imagine what unholy things a lesser man must hold within his secret heart.” Lanre faced Myr Tariniel and a sort of peace came over him. “For them, at least, it is over. They are safe. Safe from the thousand evils of the everyday. Safe from the pains of an unjust fate.”

Selitos spoke softly, “Safe from the joy and wonder…”

“There is no joy!” Lanre shouted in an awful voice. Stones shattered at the sound and the sharp edges of echo came back to cut at them. “Any joy that grows here is quickly choked by weeds. I am not some monster who destroys out of a twisted pleasure. I sow salt because the choice is between weeds and nothing.” Selitos saw nothing but emptiness behind his eyes.

Selitos stooped to pick up a jagged shard of mountain glass, pointed at one end.

“Will you kill me with a stone?” Lanre gave a hollow laugh. “I wanted you to understand, to know it was not madness that made me do these things.”

“You are not mad,” Selitos admitted. “I see no madness in you.”

“I hoped, perhaps, that you would join me in what I aim to do.” Lanre spoke with a desperate longing in his voice. “This world is like a friend with a mortal wound. A bitter draught given quickly only eases pain.”

“Destroy the world?” Selitos said softly to himself. “You are not mad, Lanre. What grips you is something worse than madness. I cannot cure you.” He fingered the needle-sharp point of the stone he held.

“Will you kill me to cure me, old friend?” Lanre laughed again, terrible and wild. Then he looked at Selitos with sudden, desperate hope in his hollow eyes. “Can you?” he asked. “Can you kill me, old friend?”

Selitos, his eyes unveiled, looked at his friend. He saw how Lanre, nearly mad with grief, had sought the power to bring Lyra back to life again. Out of love for Lyra, Lanre had sought knowledge where knowledge is better left alone, and gained it at a terrible price.

But even in the fullness of his hard-won power, he could not call Lyra back. Without her, Lanre’s life was nothing but a burden, and the power he had taken up lay like a hot knife in his mind. To escape despair and agony,

Lanre had killed himself. Taking the final refuge of all men, attempting to escape beyond the doors of death.

But just as Lyra’s love had drawn him back from past the final door before, so this time Lanre’s power forced him to return from sweet oblivion. His new-won power burned him back into his body, forcing him to live.

Selitos looked at Lanre and understood all. Before the power of his sight, these things hung like dark tapestries in the air about Lanre’s shaking form.

“I can kill you,” Selitos said, then looked away from Lanre’s expression suddenly hopeful. “For an hour, or a day. But you would return, pulled like iron to a loden-stone. Your name burns with the power in you. I can no more extinguish it than I could throw a stone and strike down the moon.”

Lanre’s shoulders bowed. “I had hoped,” he said simply. “But I knew the truth. I am no longer the Lanre you knew. Mine is a new and terrible name. I am Haliax and no door can bar my passing. All is lost to me, no Lyra, no sweet escape of sleep, no blissful forgetfulness, even madness is beyond me. Death itself is an open doorway to my power. There is no escape. I have only the hope of oblivion after everything is gone and the Aleu fall nameless from the sky.” And as he said this Lanre hid his face in his hands, and his body shook with silent, racking sobs.

Selitos looked out on the land below and felt a small spark of hope. Six plumes of smoke rose from the land below. Myr Tariniel was gone, and six cities destroyed. But that meant all was not lost. One city still remained….

In spite of all that had happened, Selitos looked at Lanre with pity, and when he spoke it was with sadness in his voice. “Is there nothing then? No hope?” He lay one hand on Lanre’s arm. “There is sweetness in life. Even after all of this, I will help you look for it. If you will try.”

“No,” said Lanre. He stood to his full height, his face regal behind the lines of grief. “There is nothing sweet. I will sow salt, lest the bitter weeds grow.”

“I am sorry,” Selitos said, and stood upright as well.

Then Selitos spoke in a great voice, “Never before has my sight been clouded. I failed to see the truth inside your heart.”

Selitos drew a deep breath. “By my eye I was deceived, never again….” He raised the stone and drove its needle point into his own eye. His scream echoed among the rocks as he fell to his knees gasping. “May I never again be so blind.”

A great silence descended, and the fetters of enchantment fell away from Selitos. He cast the stone at Lanre’s feet and said, “By the power of my own blood I bind you. By your own name let you be accursed.”

Selitos spoke the long name that lay in Lanre’s heart, and at the sound of it the sun grew dark and wind tore stones from the mountainside.

Then Selitos spoke, “This is my doom upon you. May your face be

always held in shadow, black as the toppled towers of my beloved Myr Tariniel.

“This is my doom upon you. Your own name will be turned against you, that you shall have no peace.

“This is my doom upon you and all who follow you. May it last until the world ends and the Aleu fall nameless from the sky.”

Selitos watched as a darkness gathered about Lanre. Soon nothing could be seen of his handsome features, only a vague impression of nose and mouth and eyes. All the rest was shadow, black and seamless.

Then Selitos stood and said, “You have beaten me once through guile, but never again. Now I see truer than before and my power is upon me. I cannot kill you, but I can send you from this place. Begone! The sight of you is all the fouler, knowing that you once were fair.”

But even as he spoke them, the words were bitter in his mouth. Lanre, his face in shadow darker than a starless night, was blown away like smoke upon the wind.

Then Selitos bowed his head and wept hot tears of blood upon the earth.

It wasn’t until Skarpi stopped speaking that I noticed how lost in the story I had become. He tilted his head back and drained the last of the wine from his wide clay cup. He turned it upside-down and set it on the bar with a dull thump of finality.

There was a small clamor of questions, comments, pleas, and thanks from children who had remained still as stones throughout the story. Skarpi made a small gesture to the barkeep who set out a mug of beer as the children began to trickle out onto the street.

I waited until the last of them had left before I approached him. He turned those diamond-blue eyes on me and I stammered.

“Thank you. I wanted to thank you. My father would have loved that story. It’s the…” I broke off. “I wanted to give you this.” I brought out an iron halfpenny. “I didn’t know what was going on, so I didn’t pay.” My voice seemed rusty. This was probably more than I had spoken in a month.

He looked closely at me. “Here are the rules,” he said, ticking them off on his gnarled fingers. “One: don’t talk while I’m talking. Two: give a small coin, if you have it to spare.”

He looked at the ha’penny on the bar.

Not wanting to admit how much I needed it, I sought for something else to say. “Do you know many stories?”

He smiled, and the network of lines that crossed his face turned to make themselves part of that smile. “I only know one story. But oftentimes small pieces seem to be stories themselves.” He took a drink. “It’s growing all

around us. In the manor houses of the Cealdim and in the workshops of the Cealdar, over the Stormwal in the great sand sea. In the low stone houses of the Adem, full of silent conversation. And sometimes.” He smiled. “Sometimes the story is growing in squalid backstreet bars, Dockside in Tarbean.” His bright eyes looked deep into me, as if I were a book that he could read.

“There’s no good story that doesn’t touch the truth,” I said, repeating something my father used to say, mostly to fill the silence. It felt strange talking to someone again, strange but good. “There’s as much truth here as anywhere, I suppose. It’s too bad, the world could do with a little less truth and a little more…” I trailed off, not knowing what I wanted more of. I looked down at my hands and found myself wishing they were cleaner.

He slid the halfpenny toward me. I picked it up and he smiled. His rough hand lit lightly as a bird on my shoulder. “Every day except Mourning. Sixth bell, more or less.”

I started to leave, then stopped. “Is it true? The story.” I made an inarticulate gesture. “The part you told today?”

“All stories are true,” Skarpi said. “But this one really happened, if that’s what you mean.” He took another slow drink, then smiled again, his bright eyes dancing. “More or less. You have to be a bit of a liar to tell a story the right way. Too much truth confuses the facts. Too much honesty makes you sound insincere.”

“My father used to say the same thing.” As soon as I mentioned him a confusing welter of emotions rose up in me. Only when I saw Skarpi’s eyes following me did I realize I was backing nervously toward the exit. I stopped and forced myself to turn and walk out the door. “I’ll be here, if I can.”

I heard the smile in his voice behind me. “I know.”

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