“Good thing we picked a fake name for me,” Gannara said as we rode at the tail end of our little procession.
“Yeha. Hey, Rao, thanks.”
He just shook his head at me, not needing to ask what I was thanking him for. A whistle from the guard up front. The pair of them were bracketing us, one riding front, one back. When we looked up he waved and called something in Yeoli that I thought was ‘Come here, kid,” or something like that. He was calling Gannara away from the evil Arkans. He rolled his eyes at me, shrugged and drummed his heels into his mule to ride up next to the Sereniteer, whose name was Kyirao.
It would help Gannara, to hear his own tongue spoken to him. It would, but I felt bereft. I had nothing left. My name, my home, my once future, even my caste, all gone. This being Minakas Akam wasn’t as pleasant as I once imagined it to be. I reminded myself how awful my life used to be. The evil crammed down my throat by the fat guy. A little bit of being alone was much, much, much better. So much of what I’d had, I’d lost, trailing it all behind me, a trail of abandoned and broken things and people.
I touched the pendant hidden under my shirt. I still had the most important thing. My little brother still loved me, and Gannara was still my friend. And… It was startling to think that I felt so friendly to the women, but I think they liked me well enough… and Ailadas, now that I wasn’t making his life Hayel struggling to cram an heir’s education between my jackass ears.
I copied Ailadas and pulled out a book to spread open on my saddle bow. The mule flicked his ears back at me and kept on softly walking after the rest of the herd. Nice mule. Good mule. “In the thundering days of old when men bestrode the world on the sea the way they once bestrode the stars…”
He dropped back to ride next to me. “A good book, ahem, youngster.” I put my finger in between the pages.
“Ay sor. If it weren’t too presumptious… might this ‘un ask how the honoured ser got so good w’ a book? I mean hurlin’ it, ser, not readin’ it.”
He looked a little bit sheepish, a little bit proud… as if he were proud and shouldn’t be. “Ahem. In my miss-spent youth, I was something of a faibalitziskai, I was a fairly decent player as I recall, but old men have variable memories when it comes to their younger deeds.”
“SO THAT’S—“I clapped a hand over my mouth. People looked back to see what had prompted my outburst, so I turtled my shoulders somewhat and they looked ahead again. “So that’s where you learned to skate like that!” I whispered, equal to equal.
“In – ahem – deed. I was on the city team and had a hand in seeing my sisters married well enough, but a shoulder injury knocked me out … Ahem. We were playing the Mahid team for the final that year.”
My mouth had been falling open further and further as he’d reminisced. The city team? The city team? That was the highest kind of faib player there could be. And from the dim recesses of my mind his name finally clicked. “You… you… were Killer Koren?” I’d had an ancient set of ‘Past Faibalitz Greats’ cards, all neatly slotted into wall display and the slightly faded, young, smiling face of Killer Koren superimposed itself on Ailadas’s old face… a signed card… and I had never put it together.
His cough this time was more embarrassed. “Not everyone called me that.”
My stuffy, nose-in-book tutor, trying to hammer Enchian grammar and Arkan history into my head, the man who coughed incessantly except when he was reading or declaiming… the wickedly elegant faib skater I’d seen, had been famous, and I’d never twigged to it. I smacked my closed book against my forehead, jamming my spectacles hard into my nose.
“Augh! I am so stupid sometimes!”
“Now, ahem, now, my young librarian,” he said both mildly and warningly, glancing up at the Sereniteer talking to Gannara, who was answering back very slowly. “That was a long time ago. Hardly—ahem-- expected.”
I wanted so badly to be able to run and tell someone. My companions… the six who had studied with me. Def would have just laughed his guts out and Tob too. All of them would have. We would have at least given him a faib cheer when he managed to get through a whole class without having any of us break up the lesson with jokes. If we had known. If I had known. And now there was no one to tell.
I couldn’t settle my mind on my book most of the rest of the day, just thinking about it. “Serina,” I said diffidently, finally, to Kyriala, on her mare who was showing no signs of lameness since we’d bought the mule as a back-up. I had to tell someone.
“What is it, Akam?” She was perfect as the bored Aitzas girl. I had to admire her off-hand dismissal of me. It was just perfect and made me feel like shen but that was beside the point.
“Did the honoured Serina know that her esteemed Uncle was, at one time, a very famous faib player?” The Yeoli Sereniteer was far enough ahead of us… and talking to Gannara, not paying the slightest attention to us even if he could have heard us. His partner was far enough behind she wouldn’t be able to hear us either, so I let our cover go a little bit. It was killing me to have found out and not be able to share it.
Her horse might have stumbled or her hands tightened on the reins, I wasn’t sure which. “Why… no. He has never mentioned it. How did that one find out?”
“Serina, this one humbly inquired as to the honoured ser’s accuracy and force, hurling a book like a faib disc.”
“I see. You say he was famous? How famous?” She’s a faib fan? I didn’t know that… no, it couldn’t be. But then the girls and women get taken to all the games, just like she came with father and me to the Mezem.
“T’ honoured ser were a member of the city team.” I said all of this quietly since we were playing as though we’d never been to Arko the city at all. If someone overheard they’d think we were speaking of someone else.
“Really? Hmm…” I could see her thinking.
“’bout thirty year ago, Serina. Centurion of the city team. Killer Koren.”
“Really? Really? Noooo!” She cut off her excited disclaimer, one hand over her mouth. “Really? My little brother has a ‘Hero’ card…” Her face fell. “Um… had… maybe still has… a Hero card of him.”
“Let these ones hope and pray, Serina. But yeha. ‘tis him.”
“They said he would have been the best ever if he hadn’t been injured. As good or better even than the Great Grias, or Definas Keonas… perhaps even better than Darialas Sitteras.” Her little brother had a Hero card? If it wasn't hers I'd wager my left foot was on fire. The way she's spinning player names, she must be a fan.
“And the exalted never thought to mention it to this one.”
“He probably put that behind him, then.”
“Yeha, Serina. Yeha.”
Ailadas snapped at me once because I was acting too much in awe of him for my role as his hired servant and had me re-order his book-saddlebags to put me in the proper frame of mind.
The Sereniteers kept Gannara close and included him in their morning and evening sparring, speaking to him exclusively in Yeoli. I was happy for him. It would help him a lot. But they didn’t stop him setting up his bedroll beside mine and we ended up curled around each other like puppies in the night.
My evil nightmares had been mostly beaten back and he was dreaming of girls mostly, so I ended up holding him tight while he explored his dreams that way. I was glad of that and the first time he moaned, the woman Sereniteer had checked on us.
“He’s dreamin’, Ser.” I whispered to her. “He’ll be fine, Ser. It used to be nightmares.”
“Good.” I could see she was surprised that I wasn’t taking advantage of him in that state and wanted to spit but it was the reputation all Arko had gained through the Fat guy and his ilk. “If you need, call.”
“Ay, Ser. Thenk yeh.” She rolled up in her bedroll again, since we were camped. Still far enough in the back city hinterland that inns were sometimes thin and far between.
They passed us on to a pair of Sereniteers who were a Yeoli man and an Arkan man. And they passed us on to another mixed pair, an Arkan man with a Yeoli woman. They were the second-to-last escort before the city itself and I found them the most interesting. Their names were Kefas and Serao and she didn’t treat us Arkans as though we were a bad smell shoved under her nose.
I was getting very tired of being Minakas constantly but it was getting easier. One more eight-day and perhaps I could be more myself again.