“Peace is not a right, it is the privilege of those who have toiled to break the back of war.”
– King Albert Fairfax of Callow, the Thrice-Invaded
“You were gone for long, this time,” she said.
A few years ago Tariq’s pride might have been mildly stung by the fact that she could return to casual conversation so swiftly after an hour of rather delightful exertion in bed, but these days he knew better. His head fell back against the pillow, though he twisted around after to better be able to run a hand down the bare flank of his lover. She bit her lip at the sensation, to his pleasure, to her gazed turned amused when she caught his eyes lingering on the generous curve of her breasts.
“You will not distract me so easily,” Sintra Marave warned him. “I have learned of your wiles, Tariq of No Import.”
His name she spoke with a teasing lilt, as it had become something of a jest between them. It had become clear rather early on that his attempts at hiding his identity had been seen through near immediately: Sintra, he’d learned, regularly corresponded with his sister. From their first meeting she had suspected him. There were, he supposed, only so many haggard young men named Tariq wandering the countryside of Levant.
“I surrender before your keen insight, then,” Tariq grinned.
He did know better, now. Better than to think this was casual conversation at all, or that its initiation so soon after their pleasure-taking was slight to bedplay itself. Sintra would not still leave her balcony door unlocked whenever he returned to Alava was she displeased with their time together.
“So keen that I discern you travelled to the Free Cities,” the heiress to the Champion’s Blood said.
“Stygia,” he freely admitted. “Never before had I seen such a horrifying pit of human misery, and I walked the streets of Levante during the plague.”
“Famously,” Sintra drily said. “What took you to that nest of slavers?”
She shifted around in their bed – arrogance on his part, to think of it as that, and yet he could not help it – and rested her chin one her palm. While that did interesting things to the parts of her beneath said chin, Tariq valiantly maintained his concentration.
“There was a delegation headed to Arwad by ship,” he said. “One of their slaver ships struck it on the way there – by mistake, I believe, even Stygians are not usually so bold – and took captives before sinking it.”
Sintra’s brow rose.
“Junla Osena?” she said, surprised. “That was you?”
“I followed the trail back to Stygia,” Tariq said. “Though I did not know anything of the ship save that it was Levantine when I came across it.”
His lover snorted out a laugh, her sweat-soaked and somewhat dishevelled braids swinging as she did.
“Only you,” Sintra fondly said, “would end up rescuing the third in line for Tartessos by accident. You do know she’s publicly broken her betrothal?”
The healer grimaced, rather embarrassed.
“I had heard,” he said, chagrined. “I did not mean to convey interest where there is none.”
Sintra chuckled, and for a moment he admired the ripple of the muscle in her arms. No frail poet, his lover. Warrior to the bone, born for the fight. Unlike the Lady Junla.
“Worried I’ll get jealous?” she teased.
“Could you not be, at least a little?” he half-complained.
She smiled, but it was brittle.
“You know I cannot wed you,” Sintra said. “It would be-”
“- taken as a challenge to Yasa, I know,” he softly finished.
The heiress to Alava, trading promises with a man who’d once been proposed heir to the Tattered Throne? Regardless of the truth it would be seen as a war of succession in the making, the Champion’s Blood attempting to put a puppet of the Pilgrim’s Blood in power. The Dominion would split apart at the seams, lords and ladies taking up steel to place crown their favourite. Their fingers threaded, without him ever needing to think of it, and he glanced down at the sheets. Tariq had not taken another lover since the night she’d first smiled at him and mentioned her balcony wall could easily be scaled. Love was a word they had avoided, though it roared loud in their forced silences.
“You could come with me,” he said, not looking up.
Fingers caressed his cheek, surprisingly gentle for the roughness of the skin.
“You know I cannot,” Sintra repeated.
“You would not be the first Marave to prize adventure over the high seat,” he pointed out, and immediately felt guilty for it.
It was been ill-said, that. To ask her to leave her life, her rights behind her simply to be with him. How easy it was to speak of sacrifice, when you were not the one making it. A comforting hand fell on his shoulder. It was not Sintra’s, or any mortal’s. The fingers on his cheek feel and an apology was halfway out his lips when she tucked up his chin, dark eyes meeting his.
“If you were just a man, we’d be hunting chimeras in the Brocelian and sleeping in brambles under moonlight,” Sintra solemnly said. “Never believe otherwise. But you are not that, love. I called your rescue in Stygia an accident, but we both know it wasn’t that.”
Tariq’s lips tightened.
“I am a healer,” he insisted.
“When the levies broke in Malaga, you held back the sea for near an hour,” Sintra gently said. “There are some who still swear you cradled a star in your hands. A healer, perhaps, but also more than that.”
A Pilgrim, she did not say. The Grey Pilgrim. No matter the colour of the robes Tariq wore, dust always turned them grey. The whispers had told him that denial would change nothing. He might have hated them, had they not always taken him where he could do so much good. It was still bitter brew to swallow that he would have to do it alone. He dropped back onto the pillow, tired in more than body. They remained like that for a long time, the sounds of Alava at night sneaking in through the balcony door they’d been too preoccupied to properly close. He’d come to think of the city more as a home than Levante ever had been. Tariq had been a boy, back in the Old City. It was in Alava he had learned to truly leave that behind. Let them bury me here, when Above calls me home, he thought. In the shade of the pear trees beneath the balcony. A morbid thought, and he chased it away with softer words shared with Sintra. They half-fell asleep, after, but he woke before long. The whispers were back. East, he thought. They wanted him to head east. He clenched his fist and forced his eyes to close, though sleep did not return.
“They’re calling again, aren’t they?” Sintra suddenly whispered.
Her voice was still hoarse with sleep. He turned to kiss her brow.
“They can wait,” he whispered back.
It had been a long five months without seeing her. The Ophanim could hold their tongues until dawn, at least. Sintra rose, the sheets falling off of her torso, and smiled.
“Go,” she said.
“Sintra-” he started.
“Go,” she interrupted. “Honour your Blood, Tariq.”
He clenched his teeth.
“You will have a bed here, when you return,” Sintra said, then caught him by the nape of the neck and brought him into a bruising kiss.
The parted too soon, both panting.
“And you will return,” Sintra ordered. “That much I claim from you, by right of conquest. If the Choir of Mercy takes issue, let them try the might of the Champion’s Blood.”
The Ophanim murmured approvingly, to his mild distress.
“Conquest?” he croaked out.
“Do you truly think you were the pursuer in this, Tariq of No Import?”
Tariq was thirty one years old, when his mother died.
It had been thirteen years since he had last set foot in the city of Levante, and in truth it was unwise for him to return even now. His sister Yasa would not formally ascend to the Tattered Throne until the funerary games of the departed Seljun of Levant were ended, and in a way his presence here could still be taken as a challenge to her rights. He’d been prepared to linger on the outskirts of the region until the games had ended, but Yasa had written – he could almost hear the very mild tone she’d used when they were children and she thought he was being a fool – that she would send the army to drag him into the city tied like a hog if he did not come by himself. She robbed year from us, brother, with her fecklessness. I will not grant her a single day more. And so Tariq slipped back into the city where he’d been raised under cover of night, dark cloak covering the grey robes he had grown weary of fighting against. The city guards did not look twice, for the city was swelling fit to burst with those come to pay their last respects, and after passing the walls he let his feet guide him.
How easy it was to return to the old city, as if more than a decade had not passed. This was not home, had not been a in a long time, but it would have been a lie to say there was no fondness to be found. Tariq came across his first silver breastplate ten blocks away from the entrance to the palace, and nodded with approval at the vigilance. It did little to stop him from entering unseen, though. He’d walked paths more dire than this. Salia, where all of Levant were looked upon with suspicion, Mercantis as a wanted man and even Thalassina, where the slightest sign of Bestowal was a mark of death. He brushed his hands against the old wards the Grim Binder had put into place at the behest of her comrade the first Grey Pilgrim, feeling them part for him almost eagerly. There were few places in Levant who were not friend to what he’d inherited from his distant ancestor. He strode into the depths of the palace fleetfoot and unseen, letting chance guide him. It tended to favour him. Surprised flicked across his face when he found himself by his mother’s old bureau, candelight and magefire shining under the door. Tariq touched his lips, whispered open and touched the lock. Light glimmered over steel, and easy as that it was done.
He entered quietly, finding his only sister sitting at the broad oaken desk and methodically going through correspondence. Half-moon spectacles – of Ashuran make, he noted – rested loosely against her nose as she frowned downwards in thought. Tariq leaned against the doorway for a moment, taking in the sight of Yasa Isbili for the first time in thirteen years. They had traded letters, whenever they could be snuck in, but anything more would have been too risky. Her face had grown thicker, he thought. It suited her well, he thought, made her long braid seems less like some strange tail sprouting from the back of her head. There were lines on her face where there had once been none, but she seemed… vibrant. Like she’d finally reached where she had always been meant to stand. You have, Yasa, he thought. And they will remember you as the greatest Seljun we’ve had in centuries. Smiling, Tariq cleared his throat. She nearly jumped out of her skin, but her eyed widened when she took him in.
“Tariq,” she said, almost awed. “How did you- no, it doesn’t matter.”
She rose to her feet, pushing back her chair, and their strides met halfway. The siblings held each other close for a very long time, content to simply enjoy the luxury so long denied them. Yasa withdrew first, eyes misty. His were as well, and he clutched her forearm tight.
“Honoured Sister,” he smiled.
“None of that,” she replied, shaking her head. “Not from you, Tariq. Never from you.”
“I must,” the healer reminded her. “And I will kneel as well, come the games.”
“You’re the Grey Pilgrim, you idiot,” she snorted. “You don’t kneel to anyone.”
“To you, yes,” Tariq firmly maintained. “Until the message sinks in.”
She brushed back her braid.
“We can argue about that tomorrow,” she said ruefully. “I’m too glad to see you to muster proper indignation.”
“And up late, I see,” Tariq said. “Preparing still?”
“That, at least, is over with,” Yasa grimly replied. “Letters from abroad are a relief, truth be told. News about so far away are more diversion than duty.”
The healer nodded knowingly.
“The Praesi civil war?” he guessed.
“When are they not?” she shrugged. “The committees in Ashur are betting the rebel calling himself Nefarious will win, though it shouldn’t affect trade. They say he has Callowan ambitions.”
“When do they not?” Tariq shrugged, a smile tugging at his lips.
Gods, it was still so easy to speak with her. As if they had never parted. The healer had never put as much stock in the Blood as most his people, but perhaps there was some truth to it. There was something running through his sister’s veins that was kin to him, and it was more than just red water. They sat, after that, together in that bureau they’d both been forbidden to enter as children. They traded stories of his travels for hers of the city and their family, hours passing by until dawn came. Tariq noted the dark circles around Yasa’s eyes with some guilt.
“May I?” he said, offering his hand.
“Yes?” she said, bemused.
The Light wreathed his hand, a small glimmer, and poured into her body. The rings disappeared, chasing away the tiredness, but Tariq’s eyes opened wide.
“Brother?” Yasa asked.
A broad grin split his face.
“You’re pregnant,” he said. “A boy.”
She let out a noise of shock at the sudden announcement, before relief and delight claimed her face. After all these years of trying, finally the Heavens had blessed her. Tariq was going to have a nephew and there was not a single thing in Creation that could spoil this day.
On the last day of the funerary games, the Grey Pilgrim knelt before his sister in front of every lord and lady in the Dominion of Levant.
When whispers began spread, he stared at them cold-eyed until there was not a damned sound in the room.
A fervour swept across the Dominion, after Yasa Isbili sat the Tattered Throne. For the first time since anyone could remember, there was more to the Majilis than bickering and backbiting. The Seljun was still young, the people said, and she had the fire in her belly that had driven the Pilgrim’s Blood to first wrest a nation out of the hands of the Principate. After every journey Tariq undertook, he passed through taverns and inns and let the rumours wash over him with a smile. The levies at Malaga were raised back properly, the people said. About time, and every great Blood put coin to it. To the Brocelian he went, guiding the Lanterns to purge a barrow-curse gone wild. The old rebel road is being paved anew, from Levante to Vaccei, the people said. The Majilis said they’ll raise waystations as well. To Nicae he went, scaring off the Shadow-eater long enough for the Thieftaker to learn his true face. They’re founding a school in Levante, the people said. Ashuran scholars will come teach.
Tariq came and went, and every time he returned his people were thriving a little more. It was as if the savage need for doing better Yasa had felt since they were children had trickled down to every last soul in Levant. Wildlands were being claimed, walls raised around towns and beasts driven away. Fields were tilled, mines dug and for the first time since he could remember he could see pride in the back of those calling themselves Levantines. Not an Ashuran protectorate, not Procer’s rebel principalities – it was as if the entire Dominion had woken up from a long slumber, finally remembering the defiant spirit that had seen it become a nation at all.
“I knew,” he told Sintra, three years after the coronation. “I always knew that she was born for this.”
His lover idly slapped his chest, though from the lack of bite to it she appeared to be amused.
“Are you really going to boast about Yasa being a fine Seljun even while we’re in bed?” she complained.
“My apologies, Lady Sintra,” Tariq grinned.
Her father had passed the high seat onto her last year, after finding the pain in his joints made it hard to hold his axe. The Ophanim had been merciful enough no whispers had come when they Lord of Alava had held his final feast before putting on his finest arms and armour, mounting his horse and riding into Brocelian Forest to kill the largest monster in there or die trying. The Lanterns had brought back word months later that he’d been found in the mouth of a mansion-sized manticore, having allowed it to bit him so he could drive his spear through the roof of its mouth. He’d stayed with her through the grief, though even at the worst she’d been fiercely proud of the last honour he had brought to their Blood. The Pilgrim had expected they would part for the last time, after that, but Sintra had instead baldly announced her younger brother as her heir and that she would only ever wed a man who brought her the head of every prince and princess in Procer. And so the balcony door remained unlocked, home remained home.
It was not the life he had seen for himself, as a child, but Tariq found to his surprise that he was happy. Even the Ophanim, whose presence he had once found unsettling, had become trusted and cherished friends. Partners more farsighted than he, helping him see where he needed to go before he knew he needed to be there. He still passed through Levante whenever he could, to see his sister and play with his young nephew. Izil was a riotous little joy, with all his mother’s cleverness already showing signs of sharing his father’s tall height and broad built. Seven years after her ascension to the Tattered Throne, Yasa Isbili took an arrow through the eye while riding down to harbour to greet Ashuran envoys. She was dead before she touched the ground. The Grey Pilgrim was in Helike, helping a young prince flee his murderous father.
Tariq never would manage to forgive himself for that.
Izil was dry-eyed, when Tariq elbowed aside the guards to enter his nephew’s room. Looking out the window, still as a statue. The long dark locks his mother had so often combed through affectionately were as listless as the boy himself, and those dark Isbili eyes had grown almost dull. The seven year old boy was clutching a toy pilgrim in his hands, the wooden figure’s paint worn thin from use. He did not even turn when Tariq entered the room. One of the guards followed inside, grimacing as he spoke.
“Revered Pilgrim, you cannot-”
“Where is his father?” the Grey Pilgrim calmly asked.
The guard winced.
“As he is under suspicion, Honoured Brother Bakri has order confined him to his quarters,” he said.
Tariq closed his eyes. Yasa had never worried of their younger brother, for all that his martial exploits had earned him repute. He’d never had a mind for the kind of wrangling the Majilis required, or even the more practical aspects of rule. This could be, he thought, Bakri simply making a mistake in his grief. Or it could be something else. Honoured Brother Bakri. As if Yasa’s child was not the rightful successor.
“Bakri Isbili is now confined to his quarters until I order otherwise,” the Grey Pilgrim mildly said. “My sister’s husband is to be freed immediately.”
Tariq opened his eyes and saw naked fear on the guard’s face. Angry, roiling Light had shaped in rings around his wrists, he realized.
“I gave you an order, son,” the Grey Pilgrim said. “See to it.”
The man slowly bowed.
“Revered Pilgrim,” he said. “Your will be done.”
Tariq gave him a nod, then closed the door behind him. The Light winked out and he knelt by his nephew’s side. The boy did not react.
“Izil,” he softly said, laying a hand on the child’s shoulder. “Can you hear me?”
His nephew flinched at the contact, but some semblance of awareness returned to his eyes.
“Uncle?” the boy whispered.
“It’s me,” Tariq whispered, stroking the boy’s hair gently. “Come back to us.”
His little mouth trembled.
“Uncle,” he mumbled. “Mother’s gone. She – they…”
“It’s all right, Izil,” he said, holding him close. “I’m here now. I won’t let anything happen to you, I swear.”
His nephew wept, and when Tariq found who was responsible for this stars would rain until nothing was left but ashes.
No whispers came.