“Justice is not the end of a road, the closing of a tale. One cannot be just, one can only act justly: it is a struggle from cradle to grave, not a prize seized and kept.”
– Daphne of the Homilies, best known for ending hereditary rule in Atalante
“You are not, I think, an evil man,” Tariq pensively said. “I have seen those among your peers who have allowed desire to master all else, and you fall well short of that depravity.”
Prince Alejandro Trastanes of Orense hid his fury well, though it was a paltry effort in the face of the sight the Gods had granted the Grey Pilgrim. Tariq was still learning the subtleties of the aspect despair had led him towards, the answer to his frightened prayer. To behold the truth of someone was not as paging through a manuscript, all to be found laid out in neat calligraphy. It was more akin to exposing a raw nerve, seeing what made it tense and flinch. Deeper natures could be learned from such a thing, the needs and beliefs that drove men like men drove carts, but to grasp truths less primal his own wit was needed. The Prince of Orense, for example, did not feel fury untainted. It was woven along the thread of pride, both arrogant and earned. Alejandro Trastanes was furious, Tariq decided, because a man he considered his inferior was passing judgement over him.
“Yet,” Tariq continued, “it cannot be denied that you have done an evil thing.”
Regret tightened in the man’s soul, but it was threaded too deep with fear to be genuine. It was the regret of one caught and facing consequence, not any true repentance. Pride pushed aside the rest, hand in hand with something more resolute.
“Good things as well,” the Prince of Orense said. “No true judgement, that which ignores all there is to be judged.”
Tariq had thought there would be only rage in him, facing the man who had ordered the murder of his sister. Something burning and righteous, a flame that would only gut out when the blot on Creation was harshly erased. Instead he found himself hesitant, as if on the edge of a precipice tall and windy. Like there should be consideration where before he had believed there would only be verdict. The Choir of Mercy spoke not a whisper, had not since his last brother had gone from traitor to ash. The Ophanim watched, always did, but now they kept their own council. The choices were his to make, the consequences his to discern. Is this disappointment, old friends, he wondered, or is it respect?
“You speak as if justice is a scale,” Tariq said. “The good of a man weighed against the bad, an arithmetic of choices.”
Alejandro Trastanes had set down the sword he had bared in surprise, when finding the intruder in his sanctum, and the Pilgrim had placed the now-empty cup of Praesi tea he’d taken by its side. The fragrance of the dark leaves from faraway Thalassina wafted up still, filling the small study with its scent. A single pot of that tea, Tariq knew, was worth a week of meals for a small family. That was the kind luxury the lean man across the desk was accustomed to, thinking it so natural it was not worthy of acknowledgement. Power held and kept for so long it was no longer questioned. Prince Alejandro thumbed the pendant hanging from his neck, the copper rose that held almost-unreadable inscriptions on the petals. Beware of war, for in waging it to earthly purpose you have lost the war waged within your soul. Famous words, these. Written by the renowned holy woman Sister Salienta in her work ‘The Faith of Crowns’.
“Is it not, Pilgrim?” the dark-eyed prince said. “Why else would the Heavens wait until death to part the wheat from the chaff? The sum of a man cannot be a single act, worthy or wicked.”
Izil Isbili, Holy Seljun of Levant, was eight years old.
The listlessness in the boy’s dark eyes had waned, after he was returned to his father. It took months of kindness and safety, of his uncle standing by his bed as the nightmares of sudden arrows and gasping deaths woke him screaming, until Tariq’s nephew became a child again. And the something more, for the Blood ran true. Tariq had beheld in silence as fire spread where there before had been a hole in the shape of Yasa, grief turning to the burning will to act. To do more than hold a title and officiate the debates of the great of Levant, to set out into the world unbent in the face of fear. Tariq beheld, and knew that in the precise moment where anguish was transmuted to resolve Izil had never more been his mother’s son. It was a second chance, the Pilgrim thought, a mercy bestowed upon him by the Heavens. His sister given back to him in that small, frail body moved by something greater than itself. And so Tariq stayed in Levante, where is heart had died and been born again.
He watched as his nephew sunk his teeth into his lessons with ferocious tenacity. Numbers and letters, every line of Blood and their greatest deeds. The routes of trade by sea and land, the beasts that still roamed the rough countryside of the Dominion or laired in its deep forests. Languages, more than even Tariq himself knew. The Three Sisters – Lunara, Ceseo, Murcadan – but also Tolesian and Chantant, Ashur’s High Tyrian and the tradertongue of the Free Cities. All these Izil Isbili attacked with a fervour that belied his age, and what others at first dismissed as a child’s fancy turned to admiration when the passing of months did nothing to fray it. At the age of nine the lessons of ink and word were portioned to leave room for those of steel, and there Tariq asked favour: in blade and warfare, his nephew’s tutor would be the Lady of Malaga herself. Sintra left her holdings in the hand of her brother and heir, and his heart sang almost as much for her presence at his side as it did for the sight of her teaching Izil how to swing a sword. The trite, mundane evil of mankind had robbed the world of Yasa Isbili, of all that she might have accomplished. Of all that she had to give to the land she had so deeply loved.
The Grey Pilgrim could think of no greater answer to that sin than helping her son do it all in her place.
“You speak of the soul as a ledger to balance,” Tariq said. “Like an evil can be excused, if there is an act of greater good to match it against. But every act matters. Each is judged, each is held up to the teachings of the Heavens. Holding to virtue nine choices out of ten does not make the tenth any less of a sin.”
Alejandro Trastanes laughed, the bark of it quiet but fierce.
“You speak as one of the Chosen,” the prince said. “One in a thousand times a thousand. How many mortals match your exacting standards, I must wonder? I am not exceptional, Pilgrim, in any sense of the word. I have been done ill, and done ill in turn – as those before me have, and those after will.”
“Is the wickedness of others an excuse for our own, then?” Tariq said. “Once upon a time the Empress Triumphant lived, and evils greater than any before her did she enact. Are all we born since that day to live lawless for it? Should our forebears have wallowed in vice and submission, instead of casting down the Tower?”
“You take my meaning to the absurd,” the prince said. “I did not walk under the same skies as the Empress Most Dread, and cannot speak to what I might have done then. I can speak as a prince among princes, born in this day. Did you not say, Chosen, that you have seen those among my peers mastered by desire and made vile for it?”
Tariq nodded, for he had. Crowned heads and those of their blood, having grown to see the span of their authority as a fence to break instead of a boundary to dread. Those who drunk of privilege so deeply they became intoxicated with the exemption of consequence to their actions.
“Why then, Grey Pilgrim, do you sit in my study and not theirs?” the Prince of Orense said.
Izil Isbili, Holy Seljun of Levant, was ten years old.
He’d sprouted like a weed, over the last year, and there was fond jest in the old city that never before had a Seljun needed ceremonial garb so quickly adjusted in size. Not even the almost legendarily fat Jarin Isbili, who by the age of thirty would have broken the back of a horse simply by mounting it. Tariq nephew was also patiently teaching a girl mere months younger than him how to properly place her feet to accurately loose an arrow. The Pilgrim watched it unfold, leaning against the edge of the balcony overlooking the palace’s archery yard, and smiled at the sight. Sintra chuckled, similarly amused.
“Do you think he’s figured out she damn well knows how to shoot a bow, by now?” his lover asked.
Tariq glanced at the woman at his side, and could not help but see more than his lover – there was also the Lady Marave, ruler of Alava, and it was her niece speaking with his nephew below. The daughter of her brother and heir. Now that Izil was growing older, what might have once been children at play held other implications. Sintra’s niece was not the only girl of similar age brought to Levante since the turn of the year, and none of them had been more than two degrees from one of the ruling lines of the Dominion. Word had spread that his sister’s talents had flowered again in her son, and this time few of the mighty in Levant did not want blood tie to the boat they thought would rise with the tide.
“He has,” Tariq said, looking away. “He’ll be seeing how outrageous he can make the lesson before she visibly reacts.”
Sintra snorted approvingly.
“That’ll teach the girl,” she said. “She’s of the Champion’s line, not some delicate flower in need of hand-holding.”
He inclined his head, neither in agreement nor disagreement. Whatever Sintra’s niece might have intended, she was interrupted by a throng of other children. Many of them girls, meant for the same purpose, but there were boys as well. Two Tanja cousins from Malaga, a main line Ifriqui from Vaccei, even the youngest brother of the ruling Osena in Tartessos. Two dozen children, all in all, some from minor Blood but all from an old line. The jostled and the laughed and they argued, but all of them turned towards his nephew like sunflowers following the sun. He could already see it in them, the beginning of true kinship. And now that Sintra’s niece was among the lot, an old path was taking shape. Champion, Binder, Slayer, Brigand, Pilgrim. The founding lines of the Dominion, coalescing around an Isbili.
Izil’s reign would be many things, Tariq suspected, but banal would not be one of them.
“I am here,” the Pilgrim said, “because you ordered the murder of my sister.”
The prince’s surprise was obvious. He had, Tariq saw, expected denial and obfuscation. Or perhaps some sort of justification for twining mortal kinship with an act that would see the powers of a Bestowed put to use. The healer saw no need for any such convolution, for the truth was plain and even if it had been unworthy he would not have balked from it. It was, however, not unworthy in the slightest.
“Then this is vengeance,” Prince Alejandro said. “And not justice, for all your pretence otherwise.”
“You have ordered the murder of another child of the Heavens,” Tariq mildly said. “You are now being put to judgement for this act. Where, prince, is the injustice?”
“You are no impartial judge,” the Prince of Orense said.
“The act is writ in you,” the Pilgrim said. “Confession was given as to the means and motive. The truth is clear as cloudless sky. There is no partiality to be had.”
“That you are here at all is partial,” the other man hissed. “Are there no greater evils to be seen to than a man with blood on his hands? Are there not thousands in Procer alone who have done what I have done, and more of it still?”
“And this,” Tariq said, “excuses your act?”
“You chose me,” Alejandro Trastanes insisted. “Is that just, Pilgrim? That what brought you here is a brother’s wroth, yet you would force on me a Chosen’s fatal decree?”
“I chose the evil that was wrought,” Tariq said. “And that evil brought me to you, demanding reckoning. You are not underserving, Alejandro Trastanes.”
Izil Isbili, Holy Seljun of Levant, was twelve years old.
Too serious for a child, Tariq often thought, but then was this not so often the way for tragedy’s get? Joy did not come easy to Izil, though neither was it unknown to him. Curiosity came more often, and when the line of teacher and pupil did not stand between them his nephew sometimes sought out his company for talk of faraway places. Of the Heavens and the Gods Above they did not speak, for Tariq would not force such harsh truths on one so young. It was not all harshness, the Pilgrim knew. There was kindness and warmth, too, a patience to the grace that was offered to all the souls of Creation. But Good could not be only that, lest Evil triumph over it, and fool he might be but he still he hoped Izil might never have to embrace that axiom. Not if Tariq remained at his side, as he should have Yasa’s. Once the Pilgrim had been blind to the ugliness that cornered his kin even as he journeyed across Calernia to ward off the same taint, but he would not repeat his mistake. The Ophanim had answered that choice with only silence, but he knew they did not disapprove.
They were waiting, patient in the giving of their grace.
The summer night was lazing on towards dawn when his nephew knocked at his door. Tariq’s sleep had long been light, so it was with messy robes with sharp mind that he ushered in Izil. The boy’s eyes were surrounded by dark circles, and the older man wondered if his nephew had not begun to push himself too hard. His mother had been the same, once upon a time, that light in her almost furious that there was so much to learn and so little time to learn it. That hours would need to be wasted on something as empty as sleep. The Pilgrim’s calloused hand tucked back an errant curl of hair on Izil’s brow. They both pretended his nephew did not lean into the touch. The same way they pretended Izil did not sometimes look at him in a way that whispered father, and at Sintra with an even more hesitant mother. There were too many knots unseen to it, too many things unresolved. All grieved Yasa Isbili still, and Izil’s true father still lived. But the boy had grown to resent the man’s powerlessness, Tariq had beheld it unfold. And shameful as it was, neither he nor Sintra had turned away the affection so quietly offered.
They would never have children, the two of them. Yet sometimes, when he watched his lover teach Izil the swordsman’s stance from the balcony, he could almost close his eyes and… It was a shameful thing, but Tariq had not pulled away from it as perhaps he should have.
“Sleep is not without purpose, Izil,” Tariq gently chided. “The books will still be there come morn.”
His nephew’s dark eyes – Yasa’s eyes, Isbili eyes – flicked down, but in the boy he saw the truth that his assumption had been mistaken.
“Nightmares,” Tariq stated, and withdrew his hand. “I will make us tea, then.”
The Ashuran leaves were bitter on the tongue, though he had always been partial to the taste. His nephew was not, and so he now kept a small pot of honey in his rooms. It was not long before the water was boiled and poured into ornate clay cups Tari had been gifted by a grateful merchant in Nicae, what felt like a lifetime ago. While he set himself to the work, his nephew had wandered onto the balcony and the stained glass doors to it lay open. The Pilgrim joined his nephew outside, and pressed the warm cup into the boy’s hands. They stood there for some time, waiting for the tea to cool they watched the distant sea. A storm was brewing, very far away.
“You have been to Procer, uncle,” Izil said.
“I have,” Tariq agreed. “Many a time, when I wandered still. It is a strange land, in many ways. Its people are capable of both great sacrifices and great odiousness, and it is not always a different soul that holds this capacity.”
“They made us slaves, once upon a time,” Izil softly said, eyes on the dawning storm. “Took everything that we were, until we took it back with blood.”
“All those that did the taking are long passed, nephew,” Tariq quietly replied. “We do disservice to the living by warring in the name of the dead.”
“Are they?” Izil said, turning with a hard stare. “Gone, truly?”
The Grey Pilgrim met his eyes, and said nothing.
“It doesn’t matter,” the Holy Seljun of Levant suddenly said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re dead, uncle, because their children are just like them. Blood told. The only difference between the princes that took Levant and those that rule now is that there’s a wall in the way. And walls don’t protect from everything, do they?”
“Someone told you,” Tariq said.
“Of course someone told me,” Izil tiredly replied. “I am to rule, one day. They all curry favour.”
“Mercy,” he said, “can be a cold thing to behold. But it must be offered, nonetheless.”
“Why?” his nephew said. “We might as well be tossing silvers into the sea, uncle. They do not learn. They do not change. They take because they think themselves stronger, that no one will ever call them to account.”
“It’s not about them, Izil,” Tariq said. “It’s about us. Who we are willing to be, when the choice stands before us.”
“They didn’t give Mother a choice,” Izil hissed, eyes reddening. “They just shot her.”
The weeping took him, after that, and Tariq cradled his nephew’s small frame as the sobs made it shake. He would only understand it years later, that you cannot truly look at someone when you hold them so closely.
Tariq’s hand was already raised, when the door flew open. It was not soldiers with swords bared that entered. That would not have seen him release the Light as he did. No, it was laughing children. A girl and boy, neither older than seven, both dark-haired and bearing clever green eyes.
“Papa,” the girl said. “Gorja said that-”
“She’s lying,” the boy insisted.
Neither of them even noticed him sitting across from their father, a bare sword and a pot of tea between them. Their mother – tall and shapely, fair-haired – followed behind, looking as put-upon as amused. Prince Alejandro had gone still as a statue, and Tariq did not need to look to know the terror that had seized him.
“Caridon,” the mother began in Tolesian, “It appears that-”
She froze at the sight of them, at the blankness of her husband’s face.
“Children,” she said, voice tight. “Your father is entertaining a guest.”
Their eyes only turned to Tariq then, and he smiled gently. They both looked dubious at his presence, perhaps skeptical that their princely father would entertain one as obviously travel-worn as he. They were mannerly enough not to speak their thoughts.
“I will speak with you all later,” Prince Alejandro said, his tone admirably calm. “But you must leave me to attend to this matter first.”
“Come along,” the Princess of Orense said, tone brisk as she tugged back her children.
The boy protested, and her fingers clenched like claws when she forcefully dragged him out. Tariq rose to close the doors himself, as they had not.
“My family, Pilgrim,” the prince said. “They are not – they did not know.”
A lie, Tariq beheld it immediately. He must have spoken of the matter with his wife.
“I am not the murderer in this room,” the Pilgrim said. “They have nothing to fear from me.”
Prince Alejandro’s answering smile was bleak.
“Not yet, no,” he said.
And that, more than anything else spoken tonight, gave Tariq pause.
“The girl,” he murmured. “She is eldest?”
“My heir,” the prince agreed, just as quietly.
He could see it, Tariq thought, as clearly as if the Ophanim had granted him the vision. The shape of this, sculpted by ineffable hands. In Levante, the son of a slain mother. In Orense, the daughter of a slain father. Between them a wroth that no fear no reason would abate, and the sea of corpses it would lead to. War between Levant and Procer, and how it would pull in all the rest. Ashur, wary of its protectorate again being swallowed by the greatest power of Calernia, would strike out. In the League of Free Cities war would bloom sure as the coming of dawn, from the opportunities or the mere debate over whether they should be taken or allowed to pass. It would spiral outwards, a madness that would make a hundred thousand orphans out of the unbending hatred laying between two. Tariq would not stay his hand because Alejandro Trastanes had a family that loved him. It changed nothing. But neither could he raise his hand in the service of unnecessary suffering.
“You will abdicate,” the Grey Pilgrim said, and soft as the words were they rang with the steel of a decree. “And spend the rest of your life as a lay brother in the House of Light.”
The Prince of Orense shivered.
“That is just,” the man who’d murdered Yasa said.
“No, it isn’t,” Tariq sadly said.
But it was not the Choir of Justice that he was sworn to.
Izil Isbili, Holy Seljun of Levant, was fifteen years old.
With the turn of dawn he would be sixteen and rule the Dominion of Levant in truth. For many years he had prepared for this day, Tariq knew. Promises had been made, both in the realm and beyond it. Grand designs had been patiently awaited, and among them lay the taking of war to the north. Years of argument had done nothing to change this, or change the choice of those who would go to war at the side of Izil Isbili. And so the Grey Pilgrim tread the quiet halls of the palace, in the dark of night, and into his nephew’s rooms did he creep. He wept as he pressed the pillow over the boy’s face, but his hand did not fail. He would despise himself for this, Tariq knew, until the day he died. But he despised unnecessary suffering even more. The Ophanim laid their hand on his shoulder, afterwards, in comfort. Their saddened whispers broke the silence of many years with a chorus of grief.
But none called him wrong.