Nineteen

The rider was Jarvik, dusty and looking tired. He dismounted and chuckled when he saw me. "I told you not to hang around."

"Oh, I don't know," I said. "The place has been growing on me."

He laughed. "It tends to do that," he agreed.

He left his horse in a stable near the city gates, and the four of us made our way to the law-men's part of town and Lowanda's office building.

There were thirteen of us, gathered in a large room near Lowanda's office. Lowanda was there, of course. The woman and the two men who had accompanied her and Raynor that afternoon. The two older men I had met in the canteen. A man in his forties with a sharp face and a sardonic smile. A young woman with long, blonde hair and a soft expression, looking strangely out of place in her black uniform. A man of about the same age with a badly scarred face and fire in his voice. Jarvik, Raynor, Merran, me. I wondered what I was doing there and why they were letting me stay.

Lowanda was arguing that she ought to travel to Heartstone to turn herself in. One of the older men seemed to agree with her, while the youth with the scarred face violently disagreed and the young blonde woman seemed to be near tears. I looked at Lowanda, and our eyes met.

The pain and desperation were overwhelming. I was seeing through her eyes as she was choking with guilt and grief, running through dark and deserted streets looking forů what?

She had gone quiet, and everyone else was looking at us.

"Ma'am, I honestly believe following the King's orders is going to mean suicide for you and won't be helping any of us either, but it's your decision to make," I said. "And I'd be glad to accompany you wherever you decide to go and whatever you decide to do."

"Thank you," she said.

The man with the sharp face turned to me. "Don't you trust the King?" he asked. "You fought on his side during the war, didn't you?"

"I did," I said, wondering how he knew.

I took a deep breath. "I've lived through that war for twenty years. It's cost me everything that I had. I've seen neighbours attack each other, parents slaughtering their children and brothers fighting brothers to the death. There's a great deal I don't remember and for that I'm grateful. I'm no innocent, I know that. The remainder of my life will be too short to atone for my sins."

I swallowed. I looked down at my hands and noticed they were shaking. "I've been trying to understand what happened. I can't. There's nothing there to understand. There's just madness, and blood, and men sinking to the lowest level of depravity. That's why this news about the King and the Royal Guards fills me with dread. Former friends and allies turning against each other for no good reason - the pattern seems frighteningly familiar."

"It could be some perfectly normal political plot," he objected. "These things happen."

I thought about that. "I understand you were planning a reconnaissance mission into the west before the coup. Why? To assess the damage? Or because you believe there might still be something out there? Something that will destroy us all if we don't find it and kill it?"

The young man with the scarred face turned to me. "What if there's simply nothing out there? What if there are just ordinary men like you, with unspeakable deeds on their conscience and blood on their hands? What if the evil is you?" He took a step towards me. "Can you give us one good reason why we should trust you?"

"No", I said. "I can't."



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