Content with his place in the world, Kourt petted Vanni’s hair. Kourt had a suspicion that Vanni had been less than truthful. There were numerous delightful ways to encourage total honesty. Now Kourt had his excuse to try some of them out on his lover.
“Kourt,” Artur mumbled. “For my sanity, please stop actively lusting. I can feel your emotions, and you know it.”
“Sorry,” Kourt said, entirely insincere. “I was just having good ideas.”
“You know what Vanni’s doing?” Artur grinned conspiratorially up at Kourt.
“No, and you shouldn’t root around in his dreams just because you can,” Kourt said. He hesitated. “What did you sense?”
“He’s hiding something from you,” Artur whispered. “In his dreams, he’s begging you to forgive him. But he’s not really sorry for what he’s done.”
“Leave it alone,” Kourt said. “I was hoping for something sexy, and you give me his secrets.”
“It is sexy,” Artur insisted. “Honest, bro. This kid’s into shit he can’t even talk about. He needs better words.”
“I was just saying, if I could only explain, but I’m so tired,” Vanni interjected, perhaps picking up where he’d left off when he conked out. Though he didn’t yet have his eyes open, Vanni somehow seemed fully aware of what had been said while he snoozed. That was just one side effect of Vanni’s skill with Speech discipline. He heard damn near everything, whether he wanted to or not. “I can’t sleep yet. I was doing something. Kourt? Did I forget to do something?”
“You are tired, my love,” Kourt said. “Come on. Let’s eat, and then you are going to bed for real.”
“We need to put Jayden’s mark on the web of learning,” Vanni said. “Artur wouldn’t be napping if Jayden had failed.”
“He passed, then passed out,” Kourt said. “The Boyhaudens are taking care of him. I’m in charge of you two. Everybody up.”
Under Kourt’s watchful insistence, they stumbled their way through a meal of leftovers. Then they headed back into the university and made the long trek through the halls to their patch of wall on the web of learning. Compared to the other lineages on the web, Sarafel’s was barely a thread.
Artur studied the list of their signatures and seemed troubled. “Who did this? That’s my signature. Is Sarafel trying to be funny?”
“I did it,” Kourt said. “When I put Vanni down as my brother, I put you as well.”
“Oh, Kourt.” Artur rubbed at his eyes. “It’s, like, this is sweet and crazy. But you have to remove it.”
“Why?” Vanni demanded. “You belong here with the rest of us.”
“You only get one spot on these walls,” Artur said. “This isn’t mine. Take it off.”
Vanni frowned, stubborn. “Where are you, then? Show me.”
“Can’t you just take my word for it?” Artur asked.
Vanni hesitated. “It’s not that I don’t trust your word. I only want to be sure you’ve been given all you deserve. Sarafel’s a bitch. I know she took your hair once. There’s no telling what else she might steal.”
“All right. I’ll show you. Sarafel’s gonna kill me either way this goes,” Artur said. “Not that I don’t have it coming to me.”
They headed back along the hall that recorded Magi from millennia ago. Master Sarafel had been young then, and these were the names of her closest peers. All of them were centuries dead at best, leaving her pitiful excuse for a lineage as all that remained from those days.
Of her students, not one had taken up the Magi philosophy. The majority of the college were Telsmancers. Vanni was an adopted Sourcerer. The lone adopted Magi associate, Rendian Elan, remained as an outcast because he had never accepted the invitation to become a full member.
Artur had been hanging around the college for centuries. He’d used Rejuvenation to maintain himself. Over time the practice had begun to drive him even crazier than he’d started out. These days he was more lucid and seemed to be thriving as his brothers pulled together in preparation for their students. He had become involved with Sarafel back before the Boyhaudens were trained. If anyone deserved the dubious honor of membership, it was him.
They went out of the Magi section where plain geometrics ruled the style. They went past the severe and unadorned section devoted to the Sourcerer lineages. Kourt expected to turn down one of the breezy, fragrant halls of the Telsmancers, but Artur passed them by as well.
Vanni grabbed Kourt’s hand and looked up at him, eyes wide with suspicion. Once upon a time, the Fellowship of Servitors had boasted four philosophies. The Loti had faded and died when other Servitors began luring their students away. Without the Loti, the Telsmancers dwindled as well. Servitors believed this all to be a symptom of the time of waiting, which had begun during the war against the renegade Servitors.
Kourt had known some Loti in his youth. He had been among the few who noticed how difficult people were making it for the Loti to accept apprentices. Still, he had been shocked by how suddenly all the warnings had come true. The Loti were gone, dead, and had left no students to carry on. Here in the halls of the Loti, the threads of the web simply stopped. Like many others at Telluraca, Kourt avoided this place—the monument to the Fellowship’s greatest and most painful failure.
As they went along, Artur opened the curtains that shrouded the skylights. Vanni held tighter to Kourt while the beauty of the Loti web was revealed. Thousands of colors filled in the walls as if each signature were framed in a vast field of stained glass, mosaic tiles, rare stones, or simple ink and paint.
Artur smiled shyly at them. “Ain’t it pretty?”
“It’s beautiful,” Kourt said.
“Come on, it’s just this way.” Artur turned down a narrow passage and let in the sunlight there as well. He tapped a patch of woven bead strings about halfway up the wall. “Here, this is me. Don’t hate me for this, Kourt. You know I always had Loti tendencies.”
Kourt came to see, though he already knew Artur was telling the truth. Kourt pressed his hand to his mouth when he saw what lay beneath Artur’s signature. “You had students. What happened to them?”
“Don’t cry,” Artur said, hurrying to soothe Kourt. “They died. All of them, so fast. You were among those who said they could not endure the pain of being hated. We all knew it would end this way if they weren’t allowed to have their students. You tried to stop it. I remember how it hurt you when you failed.”
“I didn’t try hard enough,” Kourt said. “I didn’t understand what was happening. Why did they do it? No. Why didn’t someone stop them?”
“And prolong the pain of their losses and defeats?” Artur leaned in closer, offering his sympathy. “They did not want to live without their students. They chose to die.”
“But not you,” Vanni said. “You’re still here.”
“I was too angry to kill myself properly,” Artur said with a sniff. “And now I have something to live for again. I had stopped teaching in order to take responsibility for Sarafel. By the time I wanted to teach again, it wasn’t possible. Saying nothing seemed less trouble than telling lies.”
“You let us believe what we wanted,” Vanni said. “Even though it meant we all believed you were insane.”
“I am crazy,” Artur said, petulant. “You’ve been in my head. You saw everything in an instant.”
“Not everything,” Vanni said. “Not the truth. I thought I was seeing the shattered remains of Telsmancer training. I was wrong.”
“That doesn’t matter,” Artur said. “Don’t be angry with yourself. Even though I had you fooled, your instincts were totally right.”
“Yes,” Kourt said, remembering Vanni’s unique reaction to Artur Bale. “You gave your kindness wholeheartedly from the start. I remember being so proud of you. You’re not one for following your heart.”
“I don’t understand why that mattered so much,” Vanni said.
“You’re too young to remember, but the Loti were the ones who gave the Fellowship our reputation as peacemakers,” Kourt said. “It sounds gentle and romantic now, I guess. Back then, one good way to get your ass kicked was to treat a Loti with anything but kindness. Somehow, they could beat the hell out of you, and when they were done, you’d be the one apologizing.”
“We never went in for grand gestures,” Artur said. “Anyway, that was how I met Sarafel. Everyone else had tried to make her see sense and quit killing everything that moved. At the time she’d been operating the Hunt nonstop for over four thousand years. I can’t even say for sure that she was only killing renegade Servitors anymore. My brothers decided to find out what I could do with her. She needed watching, so I went to serve as her caretaker.”
Kourt shivered, remembering the thousands of humiliations Sarafel had heaped onto Artur. He’d never been very gentle with her either. But surely as a stone under a drip, Artur had been worn down by her absentminded cruelty. Vanni’s polite and total acceptance of Artur had perhaps made him begin to remember what he had been before Sarafel came along.
“If a student were to appear, what would you do?” Kourt asked.
“I can’t,” Artur said. “I won’t go that far, lying to my own student. It would be an unforgivable betrayal.”
“I meant a Loti student,” Kourt said. “It might happen one day. Could you still teach?”
Artur cocked his head to the side and studied Kourt anew. “You really aren’t mad about this.”
“I will be later,” Kourt assured him. “Next time I see my master, I will be remarkably angry.”
“Well, that’s all right, then.” Artur smiled and seemed content. “If a student chooses me, I stand ready. That is, if you’re not going to let Sara get in my way again.”
Vanni’s lip curled into a snarl. “You were chosen, and she wouldn’t let you teach?”
“She didn’t trust me to look after a child,” Artur said. “She’s not the only one in this college who won’t trust me. You’re the only one who doesn’t think the worst of me.”
Kourt realized then how much he had hurt Artur through fear and suspicion and misunderstanding. “I said my final word on you years ago. You are my brother. You can have whatever the hell you want. If a rug rat and decades of hard work sound good to you, it’s yours for the taking.”
Artur bowed his head. “For now, I have you fellows to keep me company. Vanni’s only halfway awake. You’d better put him to bed. Strap him in if you have to. He likes the idea of that, by the way.”
“Artur…” Kourt started to warn again about tattling secrets, then stopped himself. After so much confusion, that habit finally made sense. “Yes, brother. Thank you for sharing your understanding. I’ll think on it awhile.”
“In peace we met,” Artur said, grinning foolishly with the formal words.
“In peace we part,” Vanni replied, yawning.
Kourt added in his bit. “Where will you go?”
They hesitated, lacking a Magi to talk about the future. Artur looked around at the Loti web. “I think I’ll stay here and dust the walls. You don’t think folks will mind, do you?”
“If they do, send them my way,” Kourt said.
Artur wandered off apparently in search of supplies. Vanni leaned against Kourt, far more affectionate than he normally was in public. Kourt enjoyed the warm weight of him all the way back to their apartment.
“Walk awhile in peace with me,” Kourt asked of Vanni, squeezing him tighter.
“Yes, of course,” Vanni answered without hesitation.
H. B. Kurtzwilde