Chapter no 33: A Sea of Stars

The Name of the Wind

RETURNED TO DROVER’S Lot with a travelsack swinging by one shoulder. It held a change of clothes, a loaf of trail bread, some jerked meat, a skin of water, needle and thread, flint and steel, pens and ink. In short, everything an intelligent person takes on a trip in the event they might need it.

However, my proudest acquisition was a dark blue cloak that I had bought off a fripperer’s cart for only three jots. It was warm, clean, and, unless I missed my guess, only one owner from new.

Now let me say this: when you’re traveling a good cloak is worth more than all your other possessions put together. If you’ve nowhere to sleep, it can be your bed and blanket. It will keep the rain off your back and the sun from your eyes. You can conceal all manner of interesting weaponry beneath it if you are clever, and a smaller assortment if you are not.

But beyond all that, two facts remain to recommend a cloak. First, very little is as striking as a well-worn cloak, billowing lightly about you in the breeze. And second, the best cloaks have innumerable little pockets that I have an irrational and overpowering attraction toward.

As I have said, this was a good cloak, and it had a number of such pockets. Squirreled away in them I had string and wax, some dried apple, a tinderbox, a marble in a small leather sack, a pouch of salt, hook-needle and gut.

I’d made a point of spending all my carefully hoarded Commonwealth coin, keeping my hard Cealdish currency for my trip. Pennies spent well enough here in Tarbean, but Cealdish money was solid no matter where in the four corners you found yourself.

A final flurry of preparation was being made as I arrived. Roent paced around the wagons like a restless animal, checking everything again and again. Reta watched the workers with a stern eye and a quick word for anything that wasn’t being done to her satisfaction. I was comfortably ignored until we headed out of the city, toward the University.

As the miles rolled away, it was as if a great weight slowly fell away from

me. I reveled in the feel of the ground through my shoes, the taste of the air, the quiet hush of wind brushing through the spring wheat in the fields. I found myself grinning for no good reason, save that I was happy. We Ruh are not meant to stay in one place for so long. I took a deep breath and nearly laughed out loud.

I kept to myself as we traveled, not being used to the company of others. Roent and the mercenaries were willing to leave me alone. Derrik joked with me off and on, but generally found me too reserved for his tastes.

That left the other passenger, Denna. We didn’t speak until the first day’s ride was nearly done. I was riding with one of the mercenaries, absently peeling the bark from a willow switch. While my fingers worked, I studied the side of her face, admiring the line of her jaw, the curve of her neck into her shoulder. I wondered why she was traveling alone, and where she was going. In the middle of my musing she turned to look in my direction and caught me staring at her.

“Penny for your thought?” she asked, brushing at an errant strand of hair. “I was wondering what you’re doing here,” I said half-honestly.

Smiling, she held my eyes. “Liar.”

I used an old stage trick to keep myself from blushing, gave my best unconcerned shrug, and looked down at the willow wand I was peeling. After a few minutes, I heard her return to her conversation with Reta. I found myself strangely disappointed.

After camp was set and dinner was cooking, I idled around the wagons, examining the knots Roent used to lash his cargo into place. I heard a footfall behind me and turned to see Denna approaching. My stomach rolled over and I took a short breath to compose myself.

She stopped about a dozen feet from me. “Have you figured it out yet?” she asked.

“Excuse me?”

“Why I’m here.” She smiled gently. “I’ve been wondering the same thing for most my life, you see. I thought if you had any ideas….” she gave me a wry, hopeful look.

I shook my head, too uncertain of the situation to find the humor in it. “All I’ve been able to guess is that you’re going somewhere.”

She nodded seriously. “That’s as much as I’ve guessed too.” She paused to look at the circle the horizon made around us. The wind caught her hair and she brushed it back again. “Do you happen to know where I’m going?”

I felt a smile begin a slow creep onto my face. It felt odd. I was out of practice smiling. “Don’t you know?”

“I have suspicions. Right now I’m thinking Anilin.” She rocked onto the edges of her feet, then back to the flats. “But I’ve been wrong before.”

A silence settled over our conversation. Denna looked down at her hands,

fidgeting with a ring on her finger, twisting it. I caught a glimpse of silver and a pale blue stone. Suddenly she dropped her hands to her sides and looked up at me. “Where are you going?”

“The University.”

She arched an eyebrow, looking ten years older. “So certain.” She smiled and was suddenly young again. “How does it feel to know where you are going?”

I couldn’t think of a reply, but was saved from the need for one by Reta calling us for supper. Denna and I walked toward the campfire, together.

The beginning of the next day was spent in a brief, awkward courtship. Eager, but not wanting to seem eager, I made a slow dance around Denna before finally finding some excuse to spend time with her.

Denna, on the other hand, seemed perfectly at ease. We spent the rest of the day as if we were old friends. We joked and told stories. I pointed out the different types of clouds and what they told of the weather to come. She showed me the shapes they held: a rose, a harp, a waterfall.

So passed the day. Later, when lots were being drawn to see who had which turn at watch, Denna and I drew the first two shifts. Without discussing it, we shared the four hours of watch together. Talking softly so as to not wake the others, we sat close by the fire and spent the time watching very little but each other.

The third day was much the same. We passed the time pleasantly, not in long conversation, but more often watching the scenery, saying whatever happened to come to our minds. That night we stopped at a wayside inn where Reta bought fodder for the horses and a few other supplies.

Reta retired early with her husband, telling each of us that she’d arranged for our dinners and beds with the innkeeper. The former was quite good, bacon and potato soup with fresh bread and butter. The latter was in the stables, but it was still a long sight better than what I was used to in Tarbean.

The common room smelled of smoke and sweat and spilled beer. I was glad when Denna asked if I wanted to take a walk. Outside was the warm quiet of a windless spring night. We talked as we wended our slow way through the wild bit of forest behind the inn. After a while we came to a wide clearing circling a pond.

On the edge of the water were a pair of waystones, their surfaces silver against the black of the sky, the black of the water. One stood upright, a finger pointing to the sky. The other lay flat, extending into the water like a short stone pier.

No breath of wind disturbed the surface of the water. So as we climbed out onto the fallen stone the stars reflected themselves in double fashion; as

above, so below. It was as if we were sitting amid a sea of stars.

We spoke for hours, late into the night. Neither of us mentioned our pasts. I sensed that there were things she would rather not talk about, and by the way she avoided questioning me, I think she guessed the same. We spoke of ourselves instead, of fond imaginings and impossible things. I pointed to the skies and told her the names of stars and constellations. She told me stories about them I had never heard before.

My eyes were always returning to Denna. She sat beside me, arms hugging her knees. Her skin was more luminous than the moon, her eyes wider than the sky, deeper than the water, darker than the night.

It slowly began to dawn on me that I had been staring at her wordlessly for an impossible amount of time. Lost in my thoughts, lost in the sight of her. But her face didn’t look offended or amused. It almost looked as if she were studying the lines of my face, almost as if she were waiting.

I wanted to take her hand. I wanted to brush her cheek with my fingertips. I wanted to tell her that she was the first beautiful thing I had seen in three years. That the sight of her yawning to the back of her hand was enough to drive the breath from me. How I sometimes lost the sense of her words in the sweet fluting of her voice. I wanted to say that if she were with me then somehow nothing could ever be wrong for me again.

In that breathless second I almost asked her. I felt the question boiling up from my chest. I remember drawing a breath then hesitating—what could I say? Come away with me? Stay with me? Come to the University? No. Sudden certainty tightened in my chest like a cold fist. What could I ask her? What could I offer? Nothing. Anything I said would sound foolish, a child’s fantasy.

I closed my mouth and looked across the water. Inches away, Denna did the same. I could feel the heat of her. She smelled like road dust, and honey, and the smell the air holds seconds before a heavy summer rain.

Neither of us spoke. I closed my eyes. The closeness of her was the sweetest, sharpest thing my life had ever known.

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