Lachlan’s stomach clamped over his pickled-herring sandwich and four cups of coffee. He nearly wished it were empty, except that then it would probably feel worse. He swallowed, and again, as the carriage moved toward Adeon’s address. He didn’t want to look out the window. The boy’s reaction—why had he never considered it?
It was entirely possible Adeon was simply finished with him. His stomach clenched tighter, but he supposed he would sooner that than the alternative: that Adeon had been somehow incapacitated, or worse, killed.
No. He couldn’t bear it. If Adeon didn’t want his company anymore, well, he could bear that, though not with good grace. And what of the boy’s mother? She might see him as nothing but some filthy Revanar predator come to harm her son. His worry climbed the scale, pitching high until he shook, and in the absence of his chair arms to grasp, resorted to clenching his fingers over his stumps, the tips digging cruelly into pinned-trouser ends. There were so many things he hadn’t thought of in his haste to get to Dreamport. His mind spun wild scenarios, and wilder ones, until he could hardly breathe for panic.
The ride felt endless. What would he do? What would he say when he saw Adeon? The whole thing was a fool’s errand, and all his thought for better was a fool’s dream. The cab stopped again and again, and each time his heart leapt into his mouth. After a minute or two it would roll on—they must be stopping at crossroads—and sometimes take a turn, but Lachlan’s pulse never settled all the way, and his chest never quite unknotted.
“Are you well?” Cathal asked, concerned.
Lachlan didn’t dare look up; didn’t want to see the pity on his valet’s face. He shook his head slightly, denial and dismissal at once. Cathal laid an awkward hand on his shoulder, squeezed lightly, and drew back again. They didn’t speak.
At last, the carriage came to a stop for good. Lachlan forced himself to get out, to drop himself off the seat into his chair, stiff with anxiety. Too close to turn back now, too close even to think of such a thing. It would be unfair to Cathal. If he got nothing else from the trip, at least there was Cathal. He breathed slowly, collecting himself, as the cab rattled away.
He blinked in the late-morning light. The street was so poor. He didn’t know what he’d expected, but not this, the cobbles beginning to crack, the tenements sagging on the soft ground. He could smell the wharves, the fishers’ wharves, even see them among the buildings. It stank. Old fish insulted what remained of his nose. Adeon came from this place? The light of Lachlan’s tired life? So wrong—it was all wrong—it couldn’t be.
“This one,” said Cathal from behind him. “Right here. Fourteen, you said.”
“Yes.” It came out small and shocked, quivery, unsure. He glanced a question over his shoulder.
“It’s the right place.”
“There’s no money here,” Cathal said. He pointed out a pack of human children playing in and out of the street. “No shoes. That boy, Adeon, he never had shoes on either.”
“I didn’t think he was so poor. I thought he didn’t want to wear them.”
“Might have some for fancy dress. He wouldn’t want to mess them. Come on, Lord. We’re so close now.”
“All right,” Lachlan said, and Cathal helped him turn the chair about. The listing tenement might as well have been the entrance to Yehoram’s cavern lair. His stomach bounded and his nerves stung, just as they had then, with Rex and Mariella beside him and Kep perched on Rex’s broad shoulder. His valet was no doughty warrior, but perhaps that wasn’t what he needed just now. “Thank you,” he said.
“Oh,” said Cathal, “it’s been hardly anything at all, especially when you match it up with what I’m getting out of it. Look, there’s a bell.” He pushed Lachlan forward. Lachlan reached up and touched the faded enamel bell rune. It still worked; from within he heard a single chime echoing.
They waited forever then, or so it felt. Lachlan itched and twitched, and at last he lifted his hand to ring again.
The door jiggled. It seemed to be stuck, but then it lifted slightly and creaked wide, revealing a small Movanar woman in a plain brown dress. That was the only plain thing about her. She had Adeon’s nose, and hair the color of honey, and blue eyes that took their fill of his face—
And she smiled. “You’re Lachlan,” she said.
“Yes,” he said, strangled, searching for words. “Adeon. Where?” It was all he could force out of his closing throat.
“I’m sorry,” she said, sounding it. “He’s gone away. Just this Longday past.”
The Movanar woman took a breath. “Lord, he’s gone to be a Knight of the Air. I had a letter this last week; he’s on a ship bound for Hayed.”
“Oh,” Lachlan said. Again it was all that would come to his lips. There was a weight on his chest. It was so much better than he’d thought, and at once so much worse.
“I’m going to post this to him right now,” she said, pulling a cheap bit of paper out of her dress pocket. “I know you swore you’d never write him, and made him swear not to write you. He was so upset over it. ‘I’m supposed to see Lachlan, what’s he going to do?’ But an oath is an oath.” She moved off down the street, motioning for Lachlan to follow. “If you liked, you might write a postscript on my letter,” she offered. “Then he’d know it was all right to write you—ah—if it is all right.”
“There’s nothing I’d like more.”
She led him down around the corner, and Cathal followed, hands ready to assist if Lachlan hit a rough patch, but for the most part he managed well enough on his own.
“My name is Elain,” she said.
Lachlan blurted, “I can see why King Muirrach took an interest,” and his face burned with unaccustomed embarrassment. What would possess him to say such a thing?
Mariella would have slapped him sideways, but Elain only laughed. “I was prettier then.”
He said nothing, but truly, he found it hard to credit, she was so very pretty now. At least the post office was close by to spare him further humiliation. It was small and shabby, with sun pouring through grubby windows. They waited on line for some time, but while they waited, Elain gave Lachlan her letter, the sort of fussy, chatty, loving thing Lachlan had received from his own mother when he was on the road. He was careful not to read it entire, only scan it looking for the bottom.
Cathal handed him a pen. There was little space left, but between “Love, Mother” and the edge of the page, he managed to squeeze: “Write me or not, at your pleasure. Be sure to direct any hypothetical letters to me personally, and they will find me wherever I am.” He hesitated over the closing before writing simply, “Your friend, Lachlan Vistridir.”
He insisted on paying for the letter to be sent in the most expensive way, folded like a paper bird and wrapped in a bubble of force. All three of them watched the letter disappear into the distance, rapidly swallowed by the Redwood’s crown.
“Thank you,” Elain said. “For everything. You were good to my son when you had every reason not to be.” She wiped at her eyes, beaming. “Maybe another time, yes? Only I’ve got to get to work, I’m already late. Good-bye, Lachlan.”
He lifted a hand in stunned farewell as she hurried away, and watched her turn the corner. Adeon’s mother.
After a long time, he turned to Cathal. “Tomorrow I’ll take you sightseeing. Only help me get back to the inn for today, and you’ll be free to do whatever you like.”
“Yes, Lord,” Cathal said, and they rode another cab back to the inn. This time Lachlan opened the curtains on his side, but he stared out unseeing and numbly exhausted. When they reached the inn, Cathal carried the chair, but Lachlan would not allow himself to be carried, instead pulling himself up the steps. He wasn’t used to doing it, and the hardwood hurt his knuckles, but his arms were strong and he won the landing without too much trouble, there to heave his body back into the chair.
Cathal didn’t remark on it, only smiled.
Lachlan retired. He was asleep before he heard Cathal leave, and he slept dreamless and deep, and woke rested as sundown crept through the window. Cathal sat in a chair next to the bed.
“Did you like it?” Lachlan asked.
The valet didn’t speak, but there was light in his eyes.
Lachlan sat in his study, reading Giant Fleas Abroad—a fine sequel, all things considered. The room was rather larger than his study at the Palace of Green Glaciers, and rather shabbier, but he preferred it by far. An old, comfortable armchair cradled his body, and his wheeled chair stood out of the way in the corner.
The snow had come to Dreamport, and even now fat flakes drifted by the window, collecting on the sill outside—but it was warm in here, with the fire and the heat-box together, and not so damned drafty as the Palace. Cathal sat in the other armchair, mending an overcoat with tiny stitches.
In the great city, Lachlan’s disfigured face was just another in the crowd. It was far more common here; certainly not an everyday sight, but there were plenty of humans who carried scars, and they stared at him, if they stared at all, with fear rather than disgust and dismissal. It wasn’t particularly pleasant, nor—he supposed—much better, but it was different. Everything else more than made up for it.
Elain was definitely the source of Adeon’s light. She came often to Lachlan’s rooms, bringing good food and sunshine and laughter along with her. Shattered in body he might be, but the White Worm hadn’t killed his heart, and he loved her. From afar was enough for now. There was Cathal, too, always Cathal, wandering through the city on his itchy feet, with Lachlan or without him, and bringing home interesting trinkets.
Lachlan looked up from his book at the sound of tapping from the window. A little paper bird fluttered against the glass, seeking entry.
“I’ll get it,” Cathal said, laying the coat aside. A blast of cold came through when he opened the window, bearing the letter forward. It turned a lazy circle around Lachlan before settling in his lap. “Who’s it from?” Cathal asked, and shut the window.
“I don’t know yet,” Lachlan said, “but I’m about to find out.” He unfolded the paper bird and smoothed it over his thigh. His eyes flew wide.
“Come on, who’s it from?”
He grinned. “Guess.”