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The emptiness of his friend's cabin was clear evidence that Sasham wasn't there. Excellent deduction, Taelin! Worthy of a Monitor! So where…
Fortunately, there were only so many places that Varan could go, even on a yacht such as Valabacal. Taelin first checked the small bridge, in case Varan had taken the other hallway up as Taelin came down to check on him this morning, then worked his way down systematically. He could have just queried the systems, but as a general rule the Five Families taught themselves not to rely on devices when their native skills would serve.
Not in the kitchen. The rec-room or the engine room, then. The door to the rec-room slid noiselessly aside, and Taelin looked in, opening his mouth to call; what he saw made his mouth snap shut immediately.
His friend stood, back to Taelin, in the center of the sixteen meter wide rec-room—largest on the hundred-meter Valabacal, taking up two-thirds of its diameter and seven meters in height—two of the four deck levels. Sasham had cleared equipment from most of the center of the room, and the transparent crysteel cover was over the small swimming pool, leaving an unobstructed area ten meters wide. But what made Taelin bite back his call, and silently command the door to slide almost all the way shut, was what Sasham was doing.
Sasham Varan, wearing his full uniform, stood motionless, his vya-shadu held before him, one of the gently-curved swords in each hand, blades parallel, one above the other, in the ancient Tor stance … which was also the pose of a Seeker's prayer. Oh, please…
Taelin could hear, now, the faint music, bells and deep, soft, mournful booming of the drums, with the ethereal voices of a chorus carrying the melody in and out of the other instruments that faded in and out like gatekeepers for a procession.
Suddenly the two swords slashed outward, a double-arc of light, the blades now held straight out. Then they crossed, chiming in harmony with the song, and his friend began to speak.
"And Torline turned, and left the place where forever would lie Niaadea, his Eternal Queen whose eternity was ended," he began. Varan's voice was rough with tears, and Taelin felt his own eyes sting with sympathy. It was obvious why Sasham had chosen this from the Book of the Fall, but even with the sadness heavy in the air, Taelin felt a smile growing on his face as he watched through the tiny crack left open in the doorway. He's starting to heal. There is no longer dust on the sword.
"He turned, and took up his blades again, and traveled across the miles and through the veils of time and the paths that lie beyond the edge of all worlds, and to the uttermost depths of Darkness he did descend, into the planes of the Hells, and his face was as if carven from obsidian, for it was as dark and unmoving as the stone of mountains, and his eyes were cold and gray as the northern oceans in a winter storm." The swords were parallel again, and Varan was in guard position, a warrior prepared for battle.
"The Lord of All Hells heard the rumor of his coming, of the approach of the Eternal King, and sent out his forces, demon-soldiers and the enslaved souls of the dead bound, unwilling, into forms of flesh, the corrupt and the debased who served him with knowledge and desire; and an army of a thousand thousand met Torline there, and they bade him stop, and to turn back, for even his blades could not withstand them all. But he came on, and the battle was joined, a lone and lonely man against the forces of Hell."
And now the sword-dance began in earnest, not the ritual few movements taught to even the youngest and oldest of the Seekers, but the deadly, graceful ballet only the dedicated and strong might attempt, slashing empty air, seeming to watch oncoming enemies, parrying imagined strikes, cutting short assaults, a whirlwind of cuts and leaps that took Sasham Varan in a furious assault on the air and the phantoms of pain and loss that harried him. Taelin saw tears streaming down his friend's face as he spun and leapt and cut and kicked, somersaulted and then vaulted skyward.
The motions froze, blades once more crossed before Varan. His voice was still laden with sorrow, and the merest shortness of breath, but it was still strong. "And they came against him, and they fell, and they fell, and they fell; and still he came on, closer, ever closer, and cut their spells from the air, danced untouched over their heads, even upon the tips of their spears before he did sever both weapon and wielder, and still he neither smiled nor frowned, but only shed two tears.
"And the demons and their allies and slaves began to be sorely afraid, for even as they pressed upon him, it was as though a man were to press his bare breast against a bitter blade; for again and again did he move forward, ever nearer, ever closer to the gates of the Black City.
"Now were the full weapons of that citadel trained upon him, and they vomited forth flame and doom; and many of their own were slain in that assault, for those weapons would themselves destroy a fortress. Yet they touched him not, his will and swords and the discipline of the Eternal carving for him a haven within destruction, and he stepped from the inferno and blizzard and storm-heart as though they were the lightest winds of summer. And he came to the gates of Kerlamion's City, the Black City, the Heart of Betrayal, and the gates were shut and barred, higher than a javelin's cast, warded with spell and mind and armored to withstand the assaults of even the King of Dragons.
"Against those gates, Torline had only his swords and his heart. But he spoke not at all, and cut, and cut once only."
The blades streaked apart, one high, one low, stopping with one touching the floor and the other pointing into the sky like an arrow. "And the Gates fell, sundered, before the blades of Torline Valanhavhi, the Eternal King, as had all other things before those blades.
"But even in that moment, as the Eternal King would have stepped past that broken portal, he saw before him the Three Redeemed, and their sorrow was clear upon their faces—not merely for the loss that was, but that which was to come; and beyond them Kerlamion's true forces waited, his accursed and lamented brother Erherveria, captains and generals of the Five Elements and Five Sins, demon lords and gods, and far beyond them Kerlamion, King of All Hells, and Torline understood their sorrow was for him, for even the Eternal King would not pass alive through that gantlet; and then there would be none to mourn, nor to go forth and save that which remained, or even to unravel the mystery of what had happened, that Atlantaea had fallen. And he saw that even on the face of Kerlamion, blacker than black with eyes the death of worlds, there was fear, and the King of All Hells dared not face him who had once sat upon the throne of Atlantaea.
The swords suddenly dropped to Varan's side, and his voice was soft and sad. "And it is said that in that moment, he heard, either from beyond the skies or from within his own heart, the voice of Niaadea, and knew that she would not have him die here, in this way. And he turned, and left that place, and none hindered him, and he emerged into the light again; and though the tears remained, he sheathed the swords," the vya-shadu spun and returned to their scabbards on his back, "and opened his eyes, and saw that the air still was sweet, and the sky was still bright, and his work was not done." He took a deep breath, and swallowed. "And so he taught, and so we pray, that always there is hope."
"Always there is hope," Taelin repeated softly.
Varan started. "Taelin? How long were you…"
"Through most of it." He offered Varan one of his handcloths; his friend took it with slight embarrassment and scrubbed away the tracks of tears.
"But you're not a believer, are you?"
Taelin shrugged, then nodded. "No. Oh, there was a Galaxy-wide civilization called Atlantaea, or something like that, about eighteen thousand years ago—that I wouldn't argue. And they knew a lot of things we didn't, and their civilization fell pretty quickly. But a lot of the rest… No, I'm sorry, Sash, I don't, and neither do most people in the Families—Five and Great alike. But I don't really care as long as it's something that helps you get better."
"Thanks… I think." They had the debate periodically, and Taelin doubted the argument would ever be resolved—not by them, and probably never. But if Varan passed up the opening…
He didn't. "But you still swear by the Demons. And there's a lot of things your oh-so-rational engineers can't quite explain, aren't there?"
"It's a curse, not a profession of faith, Sash!" Taelin repressed a grin. He is getting better. "Okay, yes, no one knows how the few Atlantaean ships that still operate work, exactly. Or why they won't work again if you just shut them off for a few minutes, so you have to leave them on all the time." Atlantaean ships being so valuable and effective—one such ship was worth ten times or more of its tonnage in other vessels—it was now completely forbidden to tamper with them in any way that could imaginably cause them to malfunction. He knew what the likely response would be, but rather than try to cut it off he let Sasham take it.
"And our scientists not only don't know why, they've been beating their heads against that wall for what, hundreds of years? And all the other civilizations we've met, the same? Without a single clue as to why any Atlantaean artifact either doesn't work even though it appears in perfect condition, or if it does work makes no sense in design? Makes it look almost like there's some special factor you don't understand. And none of them can explain what could possibly take down a galactic civilization in a single day."
"I saw you hide that Emperor card, Sash. None of the serious researchers believe it did fall in a single day. Some kind of political disintegration and wars, maybe a particularly nasty designed plague that burned itself out. From our distance, a day or a few years looks the same. And what little we know about Atlantaea doesn't really make it sound like they were committing some sin so heinous they'd be punished by the—"
"Now who's trying to palm the cards? I'm a Seeker, not a Repentant! We don't think there's some mysterious failure of morality—"
"No, just a mysterious appearance of the 'Demons' who somehow use 'magic' to cause the collapse of the civilization! Honestly, Sash, it's all so… so…" He almost said "primitive", which would have been accurate, but in Sasham's current state he didn't want to get into what might actually be a really offensive part of the argument. Taelin didn't really have anything against the Seekers—or even the Repentants—and right now he didn't want to upset Sasham, so he had to finish that sentence some other way. "…so egotistical!"
Sasham blinked. "Egotistical?" he repeated. "What are you talking about?"
"All those statues and portraits of you in the Temples?"
Even beneath Sasham's dark skin, that blush was obvious. "They're not statues of me, that's… that's… blasphemy, or something like it! Besides, lots of them don't look that much like me!"
"I know, I know—just poking you and seeing if you jump. But it is pretty funny how some of them do look a lot like you."
"Funny isn't really the word. Embarrassing is more like it. I mean, they all have the dark skin and hair and gray eyes, but that's right there in the Book." He had put away the Book of the Fall in his small shoulder bag and started to follow Taelin out.
"Well, that fits with the genetic tracing; your general type does seem to have a lot higher proportion of direct Atlantaean ancestry, and those eyes are unique. I've never seen that color in anyone else, and Lukh once told me that it's so rare that the current registry shows less than one out of a hundred million. And—putting the 'egotistical' in a less offensive way—maybe you just have a closer connection to the faith because your ancestors were closer to Atlantaea."
Sasham grinned, making Taelin's heart lift just seeing the honest-to-gods smile. "Okay, that is less offensive. And I don't mind the similar, it's just the ones that look almost—oh, Torline's Swords, please tell me they changed out that stonecolor image?"
Taelin gave an evil chuckle. "Oh, not a chance, Sash; that stonecolor's been there ever since Oro became Imperial capital, maybe before, and there's no way the Emperor's going to get rid of a masterpiece like that." Sasham winced and couldn't quite restrain a groan. "Sorry, but if you have an Imperial audience—and you almost certainly will—you'll be doing it with a fifteen-meter high solid-stone painting of yourself looking nobly down at you from the wall of the throne room."
Sasham groaned again and shook his head; Taelin slapped him on the back. "Oh, don't worry about it. C'mon—let's get some breakfast. I don't know about you, but I'm starving."
Sasham paused, looking back at the doorway of the rec room. For a moment, the sadness was back on his face. But then Taelin heard him whisper, so low that most people couldn't even have caught it, "Be where the Towers are still standing… Diorre."
His friend turned back, and there was something different—stronger—in his face. "You're right. Let's go."
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