Friday, February 24, 2017

Nameless Choices

Somber sat on the stone railing of a balcony, looking down at the crowd below. It was the final night of Harvest, and even here in the second-largest city of the Aricanus Empire that meant that a day of furious trading had given way to a night of furious celebration. Somber had no part in any of it, but he savored the moment of being completely and gloriously alone. He hadn't been alone for the last five weeks, and he hadn't really expected to be left alone at all.

Down in the square, the citizens of Dairilos (and no few foreign visitors) circulated slowly around the central fountain. The fountain was an impressive sight, and there were always a few people gathered around its edges to look up at the statues of the three warriors who stood back to back at its center. The one facing Somber held a shield; the other two held a sword and a book. Here and there, small groups had stopped to talk or joke or sing, but the body of the crowd flowed around them. Out near the edges of the square, people wandered in and out of the restaurants or grouped around the musicians who had set up in the corners of the square. Somber squinted, staring down at a group that was forming midway along one wall: they seemed to be watching a couple who had decided to have sex right there on the edge of the square. On any other day of the year, that would have merited the attention of the Watch, but tonight it was just another part of the entertainment.

Shortly after finding his way to the square -- and shortly after his friends, Blaze and Frost, had left to make their way back to the hostelry -- Somber had made his way into one of the restaurants. He hadn't been particularly hungry, but Dairilos was known for baking its food into its bread, and the smell had simply been too tempting. This particular restaurant took up most of the ground floor, which was empty save for a handful of tables. A long loaf of bread had been laid out on the bar at the back of the room, with a row of bowls in front of it. The custom was to take as much food as needed, and leave a few coins in the bowls to pay the cost. Someone had tapped a keg of beer and set it on the end of the bar with another bowl beside it. Assuming everyone honored the custom -- and as Somber understood it, most were inclined to be generous -- it was a clever way to have the restaurants open while still leaving the staff free to celebrate.

None of that really mattered. What mattered was that Brother Moon and Sister Glow were still at the hostelry, and that Blaze and Frost had gone back there. It was the first time he'd been truly alone since they left the monastery. Since before that actually: it was the first time he'd been truly alone since Brother Moon had told him that it was time for the three of them to return to their families. That part, Somber knew, had been deliberate: none of them were supposed to be unsupervised until their reunions were finished, because if the acolytes wandered off before they were returned to their families, the order would be deeply embarrassed.

He really didn't want to embarrass the order. It was just that he also didn't want to be returned to his family, or whatever version or remnant of it might be waiting to collect him. If they'd been willing to let him stay at the monastery, he would have been perfectly happy.

"You're not planning to jump, are you?" asked a voice from behind him. "...Because this is exactly the wrong night for it."

It took Somber a moment to react. He was lost in his own thoughts, and even hearing the words he didn't initially realize that they were directed at him. When they finally sank in, he turned and said, "Um?"

That was when he realized that he was sitting on the stone railing of a balcony overlooking the Watchers' Square from a good forty feet up, with his legs casually hooked into the stone pedestals. The monastery had been located high in the Grediv mountains, and its walls were considerably higher than this balcony; Somber hadn't considered that his perch would draw this sort of attention.

"You're not planning to jump, are you?" she asked again, and this time Somber really focused on her.

She was almost certainly a native of Dairilos. She had the black hair, the medium-dark skin, and general roundness that characterized Imperial citizens. In her case, the roundness expressed itself in an athletic musculature and high cheekbones, and she was almost as tall as Somber himself. And lovely, he thought, looking at her. She was wearing a patterned vest that bloused out over her hips, covering a loose-sleeves shirt and slacks that were tucked into low leather boots. On her left hip was something that might have been a long knife but was probably a truncheon instead. On her left arm was a shield, oval-shaped but with hooks and spikes extending from it. Either of those would have been sufficient to identify her as part of the Watch. Somber had seen them walking the streets, but all of them had been older. This woman was close to his own age.

"No," he said. "I was just enjoying the view." He paused, looking out over the crowd again. "In fact, what I really need to do is trade in this robe for another set of clothes, and then get out of the city."

"...Ah." She didn't sound convinced. "In that case, could you come back this way? You're making people nervous."

Somber swung his legs over the balcony and stood back up. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm really not suicidal. I was just thinking."

Standing, he was taller than her but only slightly. "I hope I'm not disrupting your Harvest," he said.

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