stopping the door

I have enough on my plate these days without trying to write a series of doorstopper fantasy novels. But this is a life goal of mine, if not an urgent one; and if I were to start in on it, it might go a little bit like this:

The soldiers came to Doma Tista before dawn. This was unusual. The village had seen armed men before, but usually they came at the end of a day’s march, the better to scour the outlying fields and roister at the village’s lone public house. This was invariably a great disappointment, as Doma Tista grew only oats and beans, and the public house was run by a strict Tassarian who served no strong drink. But the joke was not as funny as Dario would have liked, for if soldiers cannot reap, they sow, and years of coming and going from the battlefront had made Doma Tista a garden of bastards. Well, perhaps it was too much to say a garden: There were four, Ero and Palio and the Sfazza twins, although the story went that the latter had at least three fathers and possibly as many as six, which may have been why Tresta was a willowy alto with skin almost as brown as her mother, while Asta was plump and light with a voice like a stormcrow. Four soldier’s bastards, and the youngest was eleven. Perhaps it was more grove than garden. But Dario’s daughters were seventeen and thirteen, and he was the strict Tassarian who ran the public house, and it was his deepest shame that when the soldiers came he needed his daughters for their hands more than he feared for their virtue. Usually he drank this shame away when the soldiers had left (for Tassar does not in any sense mandate sobriety, although dissolutes and the godless are easily made to believe it does). But it was dawn, and his daughters were in bed, and there was only the one man, sitting very straight at one of Dario’s round tables with his hands clasped, fingers interlaced, before him. He was middle-aged, short, and compact, with a cropped salt-and-pepper beard and very clear grey eyes; and the door behind him was still barred and, Dario was quite sure, locked, as he had just come downstairs to open for the morning. Accordingly, it was entirely gratuitous for the man to have rolled up his sleeves to reveal the ribbons of equations wrapped around his forearms, whitening the skin with their constriction.

“Wizard-Captain,” said Dario. “You could have let your men in if you’d liked.”

The man smiled. “Sorcerer-Captain,” he said. “There are not many wizards now, and we do not soil their names with rank.” Dario had learned this the first time and had made the error without fail ever since; it invariably evoked a thin smile much like the one this sorcerer-captain had made, and although such smiles seemed threatening and enigmatic at first, they had been, so far, just like any other smiles—signals of tolerance and good will.

“Forgive me,” said Dario. “I’ll put on some oats. There’s butter and salt for them, and I’ll send the boys out for a few pails of milk. Bread’ll be longer. I’d offer beans, but you men never want beans when you stop in a town.”

“Send the girls for the milk,” said the sorcerer-captain.

It is difficult to convey what aspect of those six words made the sorcerer-captain’s meaning come so sharp and clear in Dario’s mind. To some extent it was the arbitrariness of the request, to some the dawn-hazed memory of strange and uncreditable rumors, to some the readiness in the sorcerer-captain’s eyes out of all proportion to the significance of what was asked. Understanding, Dario felt himself both full and empty. Empty of some deep structure, some organization, that had bulwarked his existence so solidly and for so long as to become nearly unfelt, as the beams beneath the wall support what the plaster appears to, but cannot; and full of lightning.

The sorcerer-captain looked down at his hands and filled his lungs and emptied them again, rue and reluctance as plain on his face as funeral bells. “Dario,” he said. “Send the girls for the milk. Two pails will be enough. One each. There aren’t many of us, and we’re not staying. But we’ve been working all night, and we’re hungry and thirsty. So put the oats on, get out the butter and salt, and send the girls for the milk. Serve me and my men. Then, when we’re gone, you can go to your wife and cry.” He said this last with a consummate gentleness, almost an air of recommendation, and the sympathy in his eyes was genuine and deep.

“We had word from Espadron,” said Dario, sinking down to sit at a different table. “Mad Tuco Citrian said they were scooping boys up under the noonday sun, proud as tomcats. We stiffed him on his wine and laughed him out of town. Ephanuz soaked him with a bottle of his own absinthe.”

The sorcerer-captain raised an eyebrow at this. “We hadn’t anticipated Citrian would come through here,” he said. “We thought we’d covered his route. We had it on good authority that you lot were strict Tassarians.”

Dario tried to form a reply, but the phrases would not come, and so instead he waved a hand, not looking at the trim man whose limbs were twined with mathematics. He felt fingers clench around his cropped hair and realized they were his own.

“Dario,” said the sorcerer-captain, “I know what you’re going through. You don’t believe me, but I do. And I know that in the face of that, it must seem like the pettiest, most pointless thing imaginable to ask for breakfast.”

Dario’s hand fluttered again, more weakly.

“But I must add that insult to this injury. Not only because I am on the king’s business, and I say I must, but also because there are exactly two things I can do for you right now. I can busy you with labor, and I can keep my men out of your kitchen.”

Something in this feeble kindness struck a spark deep inside Dario, and the grooves of care on his face began to warp and writhe, taking his features with them, making something mad and savage of the innkeeper’s face that had settled so many disputes among neighbors and trading partners, that had returned knives to sheaths and kept them sheathed, that had quietly beguiled a wife and guided four sons and two daughters toward their places in the world. But before that savagery could take its final shape, a high whine like a thread of bright pain shot through the air, and a big dark-haired man in the king’s livery walked through a smooth hole in the wall of the public house that Dario had never noticed was there, and immediately ceased to notice after he had come through. “Captain,” said the man. “We’re done. No resistance to speak of.” He sized up Dario and turned to face him, seeming to become a little larger in that posture. “How are things here?”

“Things are very well,” said the sorcerer-captain. “Dario and his daughters are going to make us breakfast as soon as everyone’s secure.”

The rage welled up in Dario again, but the cold eyes of the big sorcerer damped it down the way his captain’s mild ones could not. There was still Taphna to think of, and the girls. “I need to wake my family,” he said. “Is it all right if I go upstairs?”

“Innkeep,” said the big sorcerer, “you may do anything at all you feel you need to.” That was said with no sympathy or gentleness; what was not indifference was threat.

Dario walked toward the stairs to the top floor of the public house where his family lived. He imagined he could hear the silence in the boys’ room where their snores and rustles had—must have—brushed his ears before; but, in truth, he could not hear his wife and daughters even now. The inn could have been empty except for him and the king’s killers. The sorcerer-captain’s light voice came from behind him.

“I have a third thing for you, Dario. Not even as much comfort as the first two, but I have it. You have four sons, and the balance of the conquering is done. And one day your grandchildren will tell their friends how their fathers and uncles were present at the Harrowing of Cthrec Ygal.”

Dario turned and slit his eyes. “If you do your job, Sorcerer-Captain, every other child of my grandchildren’s generation will have the right to say the same.”

“Greatness isn’t being better than your neighbors, Dario,” said the sorcerer-captain. “Greatness is meeting what comes.”

If they had been anywhere but his own public house, Dario would have hawked up a luxuriant plug of spit, sneered, and let fly—but it was his own public house, and his sons’ love and labor infused the boards no less than did his own, and he would not face his daughters with such a pathetic proof of his own impotence and hate. His knuckles stood out like the boles of severed branches as he grasped the banister, and when the wood of that first step creaked under his weight, he heard his back creak with it.

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