That night in front of the fireplace, Stranger told Warlike and Hopeful about Serdia’s warning. They listened in silence and when he concluded by telling them that he would be moving on in the morning, they exchanged glances, but still, they did not speak. Stranger looked from one to the other, a scowl building on his brow as from the kitchen, the sound of the children’s laughter provided a stark contrast to the grave silence that had settled amongst the three of them like a dark visitor.
“Well?” he demanded finally. “I know you have something to say, so come out and say it. It’s not like you two to keep your mouths shut, the gods know.”
Warlike gave a low growl and opened her mouth, but Hopeful put a hand on her sister’s arm, shaking her head. Warlike leaned back, her arms crossed over her chest, and Hopeful leaned forward, meeting Stranger’s eyes.
“We know you’re trying to protect us”, she said, “and we understand. But this isn’t like what happened in Hahn. Cunning isn’t your father, not the all-powerful Ruler of a great City. He is well-connected, yes, because he provides powerful men with a service too despicable to be widely available, but he isn’t well-liked here.”
Hopeful paused, hesitating, but Warlike was sitting beside her, nodding her head, a fierce and, yes, decidedly warlike gleam in her amber eyes. Stranger collapsed back in his chair, rubbing his hands over his face.
“You want me to go back to Serdia”, he said at last, letting his hands fall back onto his knees. “You want me to tell her I’ll do what she wants. To start a civil war, right here in the city you live in, and then what? Do you think something like that would stop here? If we defeat Cunning, drive all the people who still believe it’s their gods-given right to keep slaves out of this city, do you think that would end it? It would start a fucking revolution, and if anything’s guaranteed to draw the eyes of the Cities to the Lawless Lands, that would be it. You, and all the people like you, are only safe because nobody’s looking for you. The Lawless Lands are an ugly blemish on the Rulers’ behinds, but because you are out of sight, and make no trouble for anyone but yourselves, they’re happy to let you rot in your own filth, where no one can see you. This would make them see you.”
“Yes”, Warlike hissed, popping up from the couch like a coiled spring and taking the two steps to Stranger’s chair, where she crouched in front of him. “Which is why we’re not suggesting you start a revolution, you dumbass. Cunning is just one man. Take him out, maybe someone else comes along to take up his disgusting business. Maybe they don’t. Either way, you can be damned sure they’ll think twice before messing with us and what’s ours. These are the Lawless Lands. People get dead all the time and as for Serdia, she might not be entirely happy with such a small-scale solution to the problem. But I’m sure she’d agree we’d be doing a public service.”
Stranger sucked in a breath as Warlike’s words sank in, making him feel as though he were suddenly in a free fall. He could feel his hands begin to shake, and grabbed hold of his thighs to stop his emotion from showing. Nevertheless, it came through in his voice, which turned to gravel as it forced itself out of his suddenly dry throat.
“Kill him, you mean. You think I should just kill him.”
Like I have the right. Like I am the one who gets to decide who lives and who dies. Like I am my father or, more to the point, like I am my father’s son. Judge, jury, and executioner.
He didn’t say any of those things out loud, but from the way Warlike sat back on her heels and lowered her gaze, he knew she could read them in his eyes, and wondered if the look on his face was as horrible as the writhing knot of night-black emotion unfurling within his breast. For a moment, he just sat there, holding his breath so that the words he wanted to let loose on these beloved women, who hadn’t meant to bring his deepest held fears to the surface, wouldn’t come spewing out and poison the air between them.
A moment passed in silence, then another. The rushing in Stranger’s ears diminished from a roar to a quiet, barely audible buzzing, and he took in a deep breath. Then, before either Hopeful or Warlike could stop him, he rose from his chair and quickly walked out of the room. He could hear feet scuffling behind him as Warlike stood, and a quiet argument as Hopeful stopped her sister from following.
Good. He would be gone in the morning, and he didn’t want the last words between them to be any of the ones he would say, if either of the sisters tried to push him any farther on this subject. He knew his temper, and knew well that between people who genuinely cared about each other, words exchanged in anger could cut as deep, and make as much damage, as any weapon.
But that isn’t true, a voice from deep within him whispered. Words can’t kill. Words can’t open a man’s stomach and leave him bleeding to death on the floor of his own bedroom, trying to hold his intestines inside his body. Not like a sword. Not like your father’s sword.
He walked into his room and quietly shut the door behind him. But like the phantoms of the dead, the fears that haunted Stranger could not be kept out by the simple expedient of slamming a door in their faces. As the sounds coming from the other side of the door painted the picture of a family settling in for the night, Stranger sat in the dark. And when the rest of the house fell asleep, he was sitting there still. His body was calm and at rest and his breathing even, though his mind wandered, and his eyes turned again and again to the gleaming of moonlight, reflecting off the blade of his sword, where it lay, naked and cold, on his lap.
An hour passed, perhaps two, before the soft thud of footsteps pulled Stranger from his grim musings, and when the gentle padding of bare feet against floor paused at his threshold, he carefully lifted the sword off his lap, sheathing it and sliding it under his pillow.
When the doorknob turned, he expected to see Warlike or Hopeful, though when he tried to imagine what either of them might want with him that couldn’t wait until morning, he came up blank. The women he called his sisters knew him better than anybody alive. Better, he sometimes thought, than he knew himself. They certainly knew him better than to expect a continuation of their argument to change his mind, and in all the years they had known each other, none of them had made a habit of apologizing to the others.
So when the door opened and the boy peeked inside, his eyes reflecting the moonlight the way Sixer eyes did, Stranger’s confusion gave way to understanding, and he made a conscious effort to relax. The kids must have heard raised voices, and for a boy whose experience of angry adults was all from the perspective of a brothel slave, it was no wonder he didn’t feel safe enough to go to sleep.
“Hey kid”, Stranger said, keeping his voice low so as not to awaken the others. “I’m up. Sorry if we scared you, earlier.”
The boy slunk inside, quietly closing the door behind him, and in the light from the moon, Stranger could see the quick eye roll that was any teenager’s – human or Sixer – response to adult stupidity.
“You don’t scare me”, he said. “If you did, do you think I’d be dumb enough to stick around?”
Stranger had no answer to that, but when the boy came up to the bed and took a seat beside him, Stranger swung his legs up and moved to the middle of the bed to make room for him.
“I heard you”, the boy continued, after he had arranged himself to his satisfaction. He was lying on his back, staring up at the ceiling, his arms folded beneath his head. He looked completely relaxed, completely unafraid, but there was a wrinkle in his forehead that indicated he was stewing something over. Stranger recognized it, because it was the same expression that had left permanent burrows in his own face.
“You mean you heard what we were talking about”, Stranger concluded.
The boy chewed on his lip, and Stranger kept quiet, not sure what about his argument with the sisters had set off this bout of adolescent brooding. If it had been Stranger as a boy, before those last, horrible years in Hahn, the talk of killing would probably have done the trick. Somehow, though, Stranger found it difficult to think this feral boy, raised in the Lawless Lands, where eat or be eaten was the natural order of things, would be bothered by a little thing like two of his guardians casually contemplating murder. When the boy finally spoke, Stranger congratulated himself on having been correct in his assessment.
“I think the aunties have a point”, the boy said. “I told you Cunning has it out for you now. You embarrassed him. He won’t stop messing with you, even if you give me back to him. If it would help, I would go. But it won’t.”
“Even if it would, we wouldn’t let you.” Stranger reached out and ruffled the boy’s hair, smiling at the scowl that earned him. “You’re family, kid. And we never turn our backs on family. But that’s not what’s bothering you, is it? You’re wondering why I won’t kill him. Thinking it would solve all our problems if I just went over there with my sword and chopped his head clean off his shoulders.”
Stranger put no accusation in the words. It was nothing the sisters hadn’t told him. It wasn’t anything, come to that, he hadn’t told himself as he sat in the dark, the weight of his sword reassuring and cold on his lap. The boy shrugged, darting a quick glance at his face.
“It would solve all your problems. He’d be dead. Everyone would know not to mess with you. And I’ve heard the stories. You’ve killed people before.”
Another shrug, as if to say, so what’s the big deal? Stranger sighed, looking up at the ceiling. After a moment that seemed to drag out a long time, he responded.
“I have killed people before. And I could tell you I’ve only ever done it when I had no other choice. I could tell you that all the people I’ve killed, I killed in self-defense, or in defense of others. I could tell you that I’ve never taken a life when there was another option. But that would be lying.”
He paused. Glanced down at the boy, whose reflective eyes were fixed on him with a look that asked nothing, expected nothing. After Stranger had been silent for a while, the boy apparently decided he wasn’t going to say anything else, and he curled up against the larger man’s side with a jaw-cracking yawn. Stranger almost thought the boy had fallen asleep, when he said, in a low, ponderous voice:
“I think I might have killed someone, once. I was just a dancer then, probably around eleven or twelve – hadn’t started working in the upstairs rooms, yet. There was a customer who thought that didn’t matter, that he could have a bit of fun with me without paying. He was big, so I let him put his cock in my mouth. Then I bit it clean off. It bled a lot. Someone told me later that he probably hadn’t survived.” He paused for a moment, as though considering his own words, and then he continued. “I wasn’t sorry, though. I suppose you’re sorry about the people you’ve killed, and so, don’t want to do it again. Not unless you have to. I get that, sort of. I just wish you didn’t have to go away.”
And then, after only a few more breaths, the boy’s soft snores told Stranger that this time, he really had gone to sleep. But before he did, he had changed Stranger’s mind. Suddenly, he knew that on his way out of town, he would be paying Cunning a visit.
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