“Young man, can you tell us who you are?”
This was a test, I thought. What she meant was, Can you remember who you are?
Blessedly, I realized that I could. Recent history might be disturbingly lost to me, but not this. “My name is Ander Hart, and I am a supercargo on the greatship Mel Farria
. If you didn’t know this”—though I was fairly sure they did—“please could somebody send word to my captain? He’ll want to know where I am.” Not that he would wait ship for me, if I threatened to outstay my leave. The greatships keep a relentless schedule and supercargoes are ten a penny, not even crew. I may have been more anxious than I admitted. How long had I been here, one day, two…?
“Too late for that, lad,” she said, kindly but robustly, not trying to shield me from bad news. In itself, that was no surprise. What did startle me was a sudden human touch, fingers linking quietly with mine where the boy must have dropped unobtrusively to the floor again on my other side. Apparently he felt that his duties included holding my hand to help me through the shock of it as his mistress went on, “Your ship sailed more than a week ago. At that time, we hadn’t even established who you were.”
“Wait, no. How…?”
Suddenly I was too weak even to finish a sentence, but she could do it for me. “How long have you lain here in your sickness, in my house? Two weeks now, under the care of Master Lambis. Master Mage
Lambis, I should say. We owe your life to him.”
“Others helped,” the mage murmured deprecatingly. “Luke’s intervention was critical. And his willingness to attend daily was…exceptional.”
“Oh, Luke! That man does what he does for his own ineffable reasons. There’ll be a price, no doubt, and one of us will pay it sooner or later.”
“We all will. He’ll call it back from each of us in turn, as he has need. Even our young hero here, him too. But let’s not be scaring him with debts and obligations, when all he’s asking for is a story of his own making. Tell him what he wants to know, then leave him to me.”
They were old friends, these two, so much was obvious. Between their banter and my bewilderment and the boy’s tight grip on my hand, I almost lost my own grip on what mattered. Which might have been the intention, all around. Still, I hung on to the needle question: “What happened, to bring me here?” One question, drawing a whole lot of threads behind it: why do you call me a hero?
and why have I needed a mage healer?
and why don’t I feel better than this if I’ve been magicked?
I had seen mage healings, and they were brisk little miracles, over too quickly for their own good, lacking the impact they deserved. Whereas I felt like I was dragging through sludge, just with the effort of breathing, thinking, holding on. Trying to understand.
“I had you brought here,” she said—which wasn’t what my question meant, and she knew it. “We saved your life, Master Lambis and I—and others, yes—because you had saved my foster daughter’s, at the very great risk of your own. Don’t you remember? Try: it’ll be better if you tell me as much as you can, before I tell you anything. You need to use your mind, not have it spoon-fed. You know who you are, what vessel you sail with. That’s something. What’s the last thing you remember?”
What vessel I used to sail with, I thought grimly. Greatship captains are implacable. If I caught the vessel next time she came around, he might take me back aboard, perhaps. But that would be a year away.
“We had come to Amaranth,” I said slowly, struggling with a memory that felt like honey, sticky and liquid and unreliable. “Am I still in Amaranth?” Or had I lost more even than the two weeks she had told me of?
That was all she said, but it was something, at least. It put a limit to what was missing from my mind. I said, “I remember dropping anchor; I remember coming ashore. The city was in festival, crowds in the streets, ribbons and music everywhere.”
“Good. Do you remember what festival that was?”
I was not a citizen of Amaranth. The language came readily to my tongue, as it’s the language of trade all over, but the great city itself was just one more port of call to me. Nor was I a subject of the Emperor. Imperial holidays meant nothing; the only calendars that mattered were the table of tides and the sailing schedule. But her questioning made me dive deeper into the murk of memory, as it was meant to do. It was like swimming back into a half-remembered dream, clutching at fragments and finding them more solid than I thought, a web of fabric that didn’t disintegrate as I snatched at it.
“Flowers,” I said hesitantly. “Everyone wore flowers. Children were parading all through the city singing flower-songs, flinging petals into the crowd… And there wasn’t a room to be found anywhere in the city, I remember that. The taverns were overflowing. And I lost sight of my friends in the crush…”
“The Festival of Flowers,” she confirmed, sounding pleased but not yet satisfied. “Good. It dates back before the Empire, even; Amaranth has always welcomed the spring with flowers and song. And you had no room to go to, and no company to drink with. What did you do?”
“I had half a mind to go back to the ship, only it seemed so feeble. And I wasn’t sure I’d find a boat anyway. Who’d want to row a mile out and back, with all the city on holiday and the noise of it leaking over the water while you hauled at the oars? So I just let the press of the crowd carry me away from the dockside, up into the city proper…”
As I recited it, so I remembered it: hesitant but determined, chasing elusive memory, recovering something that had been lost to me. The boy’s thumb played across my palm while I lay in my private darkness, reaching and reaching, finding the story act itself out in my head like something fresh and immediate, happening right now.
“I’ve been to Amaranth before, of course, whenever we called here, but I never really left the dockside quarter. There’d never been a reason.” Now I was swept along, higher and higher, lost and heedless. I knew I could always find my way home. Even as the crowd carried me this way and that, I was catching glimpses of the Mel
where she lay at anchor. You can’t hide a greatship. You can’t lose
You can get left behind, though. You can wake up and find that your entire life has sailed away from you: your work, your shipmates, your home. For a moment, a sense of desolation swept over me as I realized anew just how utterly abandoned I was, in a city where I knew no one, where I didn’t belong, where I had no idea how to live.
I clutched the boy’s fingers, almost in despair. He squeezed back, even as his mistress said, “Go on. Where did the crowds bring you in the end?”
“Into a public square, I think. Somewhere so big that even so many people couldn’t fill it. I found space to stand, space to breathe, space to look about. There were broad steps, I remember, leading up to a great stone building with braziers burning at the door, a temple or some such.”
“The Pantheon,” she said softly, nudgingly, “on Memorial Square.”
“That’s right, I heard someone say the Pantheon. They said the guards would let people sit all day on the steps, because it was festival. I decided to climb up to the top then, if it was allowed, just to see the view; but I didn’t get far.”
“Something…violent.” It was a haze, a blur in my head. “There was a girl, teenage, pretty. Happy. She had flowers in her hair, and a dress of good Shaolai silk. There was a bevy of friends with her, boys and girls her own age, but she’d run down a couple of steps ahead of them. She was looking back, I remember that,” beckoning them on to some adventure. Proud to be first, to be boldest; delighted to lead.
“And then—” Something happened. Something dark came between her and me, a shadow. The memory of that was a dream within a dream, shredding where I tried to touch it. I hadn’t seen it clearly even then—but I saw the blade clearly, then and now. The hand that held it was only an implication, the vaguest conceivable shape, but the blade itself was vivid. And held poised, high, ready to come slashing down on that girl in all her innocence and pleasure—