“You shouldn’t have come here,” he muttered, looking up from the spicy tea he’d been drinking. He meant it to be a criticism, but it lacked conviction. Lacked the scolding it needed to have.
“Yeah, yeah,” the Soulless dropped into the seat opposite him, rolling eyes that were a rich, ocean-vast blue as he relaxed deep into the chair, one hand resting on the table, fingers drumming softly. “But if I hadn’t come you’d have come searching for me and the last time you’d done that stupid shit, we nearly blew shit to the winds.”
“Do not remind me,” he took a long pull from his cup and set it down pointedly. “But that doesn’t explain why are you here now, Jaro. We were not due to meet up again for at least another month, a meeting that’s long been planned, so why would I have searched you out ahead of it?”
The Soulless’ eyes swung around the tavern, watching as Sinner bartenders ambled from table to table, as visitors hailed down food and drink, as Ryphqians and travelers alike gossiped about the latest Riverbank arena fight. Jaro missed nothing, saw everything, even if at a glance it seemed like he was just a loose-muscled, relaxed male spending a meal with a friend or partner. Even if only a Dhaoine who knew what to look for would spot the warrior’s alertness to those eyes, to the way his muscles twitched in roving waves, to the way his attention sharpened every time he took notice of a potential threat. But looks could be deceiving. I would know.
When those fathomless eyes swung back to him, it was hard not to flinch under their weight. He’d never really gotten along with Jaro back before the Worlds had gone belly up and septic, but difficult times made strange bedfellows. And a lot could happen in forty years that helped a male change his opinion of a Dhaoine.
“Rhys found N’phier City, Sheieh,” Jaro answered finally. He swayed in his chair, feeling like the ground beneath his feet had opened suddenly and he was falling, endlessly falling with no idea how long until he hit bottom. The Many See us. “And,” the Soulless leaned forward, rapping a knuckle on the worn wood of the table seemingly uncaring of how the news affected him, “not just him. Relyt and that fucker’s merry band of searchers found it, too.”
He cursed, even though he was a Grey Soul Healer and it was blasphemous, and downed the remainder of his tea before signaling for a bartender. “Make it whiskey, the strongest you have,” he said when the neodrach swept his cup deftly off the table. Turning back to Jaro he fought to keep what he was really feeling off his face and had no idea if he failed or not. “So, they both found the City? How? And why did they even go searching for it in the first place?”
Jaro shrugged and leaned back in his chair, resuming his soft drumming. It was an absentminded habit more than a nervous tick or a sign that he was holding something back. “According to the reports I managed to catch a few glimpses of and the rumors from Relyt’s camp — those fucks really need to learn what a damned privacy ward is — ” the Soulless rolled his eyes, “they just stumbled upon it. Now Rhys? He deliberately went and looked for it.”
Sheieh narrowed his eyes because that couldn’t be the half of it. It seemed too easy, too innocuous. And Fate rarely was that simple, let alone that random.
“There has to be more to it,” he pressed when Jaro remained silent for a few heartbeats.
“Yeah, fuck yeah there’s more,” the Soulless leaned in again, further than before, arms crossed on the table, eyes more intense than Sheieh could ever remember them being. But Jaro didn’t speak until the bartender dropped off Sheieh’s whiskey and walked off again. Not that it mattered, they both had privacy wards up strong enough that only a member of the Honorable or Grey Court could hear what they were really saying. But caution was better than the alternative. “They saw different things. Not remotely the same.”
He downed the whiskey in two gulps and signaled for another, grateful for the way the burn pulled his focus into sharpness as he tracked it all the way into his gut. Drinking during this conversation was ill-advised but he couldn’t be sober it, not completely. “That’s not possible. How could they see two different things?”
“Well it happened,” the Soulless rubbed at his face and sighed. “And it gets worse–”
“Of course it does,” he grumbled. Jaro just snorted.
“Relyt supposedly walked through the City. Got all the way to Xitlali’s old compound before they encountered some seriously powerful death magick. It made one of their party literally tear out their own throat…” the Soulless trailed off, eyes going distant, seeing things neither of them wanted to talk about.
“But when Rhyshladlyn got there the City didn’t exist,” Sheieh finished.
“No,” Jaro shook his head. “Neither Relyt and his party or Rhyshladlyn saw the Watchtowers. And Rhys even fuckin’ touched one of them.”
“The Many See us all,” he whispered.
Jaro didn’t respond, just signaled for a bartender and ordered a meal and drink for himself. As the silence stretched between them, easy and companionable but still tense with things unknown and unsaid, Sheieh got lost in his thoughts. Ordered yet another whiskey and drank this one slower, sipping it, savoring the burn and the spicy hit of it on the back of his tongue, the smoothness as it traveled down his throat.
How he’d gotten here of all places, sharing a tavern table and a meal with Jaro, was still beyond him.
After all, he hadn’t wanted to work with anyone else to right the wrongs of the past. But then again he hadn’t known that he wasn’t the only one unaffected by the Worlds-wide memory loss, though neither he nor Jaro knew what had caused it yet. Well, Jaro didn’t and he pretended he didn’t either, despite having a sneaking suspicion about it; but that suspicion wasn’t remotely close to being proven yet, so he’d kept it to himself.
It had been mere happenstance that Sheieh had come upon the Soulless wandering the streets of some random metropolis twenty years after the event. It was the first time any Dhaoine had looked at him with true recognition. It was the first time they’d sat and exchanged information, what little there had been back then, and made a shaky agreement to help each other. To share information, to be the tether point to a past only they seemed to remember. A reason to have faith and hope that one day, eventually, things would go back to the way they should be.
And he’d kept to that. Had regularly met with Jaro in sporadic locations across the Worlds based on what year month they were in. Was just as careful as the Soulless to make sure they weren’t followed, that no one — not even each other — knew where they spent the majority of their days. It was a precaution taken not because they didn’t trust each other, though there was for certain a heavy dose of that, but because they didn’t know if any of the Anointed One’s people had also escaped the memory wipe. And that wasn’t something either of them had wanted to risk contending with until they were good and ready.
He had wanted to work alone for so many reasons. The main one being that he owed Relyt that much. Owed his g’agsha the honor of righting wrongs that neither of them had meant to make but had done so anyway. And for the longest time, for centuries after the war, it had just been he and Relyt. It was a habit that was hard to break, even when faced with shouldering the weight of necessity. But for all that he’d railed against it at first, Sheieh had come around to the idea of working with the other male. It just made more sense to stand beside Jaro. After all, the Soulless was remarkably good at blending in and getting information out of even the most tight lipped of Dhaoine. Him? Not so much.
So they played to their strengths and met in the middle where those strengths failed them. Had learned as much as they could about what the Worlds saw and thought and experienced over the last forty years. Looked for the overlap, for the moments where the past’s reality and the present’s reality mingled and fuzzed along the edges. Looked for Dhaoine who showed any sign of seeing the truth instead of the lie. And prayed that one day they’d be able to open the eyes of Dhaoine Worlds-wide. Prayed that they’d no longer be the only ones who knew the truth.
But Jaro was beginning to lose hope and Sheieh didn’t blame him. It was a lot of work for a full Court, never mind for only two Dhaoine. But they managed. There just wasn’t any other choice but to manage.
“I think it’s time we start planning to reveal ourselves,” Jaro said as he swallowed the last bite of the chicken and rice he’d ordered. Sheieh raised an eyebrow at him, pulled from his musings. “Think about it. Relyt thinks he walked in a City that doesn’t exit and Rhys went right to it and touched a Tower without seeing or feeling it. I saw N’phier City actually take echo-form at that touch, Sheieh,” he put his utensils on the plate and fiddled with his cup. “I think the magick that’s kept the Worlds blind to reality is weakening.”
“That’s all well and good,” he took a longer sip of whiskey, “but there’s no guarantee that revealing ourselves now, that walking into the Eighth Palace and proving who we are and what we know to Thayne and Rhyshladlyn will net us anything but disaster.”
“True, but there’s also no guarantee that this weakening is permanent, either,” the Soulless countered and took a pull from his own cup. “I’d rather act now and deal with the failure of it, then risk another forty fucking years — or more — of this bullshit because whatever’s caused this regained its strength and came back twice as strong.”
Sheieh blew out a breath and scratched at his forehead around his gretkewq. It was a sound argument, one he agreed with, but the risks were too great. If they revealed themselves now, without being sure that this weakening wasn’t a trick, they could break the minds of every Dhaoine they came into contact with. But if they didn’t at least try…
He thought of that house he’d visited a few days ago. Thought of the pile of decayed bones, the marks on the walls, the blood on the carpets and the ceilings and counters. Thought of the fight he’d witnessed and the aftermath. The wrong brother died. Thought of all the risks he’d taken to get here, to this table, to this moment. The worst had already happened: Balance had been robbed from the Worlds when Relyt had put that collar on Rhyshladlyn’s neck and Lílrt had activated the spell woven into it. If the Grey Qishir’s mind broke now and the Worlds returned to the same existence they’d been in for three hundred years? Well, it wasn’t an ideal outcome, but it wasn’t one he didn’t already know how to handle.
“Fine,” he growled softly and leaned forward, pointing across the table with the hand he’d scratched his forehead with, “but mark my words carefully, Jaro Erosson, we start small. Pick a Dhaoine who would at the very least know of us but has no memory like we do. If their mind breaks when we reveal who we are and argue the point? Then we wait until we have more information, until we can be absolutely certain that the same will not happen to Rhyshladlyn and Thayne’s Courts.”
“And if I don’t agree? Or if I move without you, without that certainty?” Jaro asked, face calm, almost serenely so. It was the look of a thousand year old warrior who had seen horrors no Dhaoine should see, much less see and survive. A warrior testing the boundaries he was being given. And while it irritated him, Sheieh could respect the Soulless for doing it.
He smiled slowly, knew the kind of smile it was by the way Jaro’s magick flared before the Soulless could soothe it, quick burst of warning. Rising slowly from his chair, careful to keep each movement precise and deliberate, to not spook the Soulless watching him with the same look he imagined field mice gave to hunting hawks and owls and wild cats, Sheieh pulled out some golds and silvers and dropped them to the table to cover his drinks and the meal he’d had before Jaro had arrived.
“If you act against me in this, I will hunt you down and I will kill you.” He calmly clasped his hands behind his back, that smile still tugging at his mouth, making his cheeks hurt. “My kind’s inability to handle conflict be damned, if you risk us tipping the Worlds back into a reality where Balance doesn’t exist? I will ruin you. Because breaking Rhyshladlyn’s mind will do worse to the Worlds than rendering him Imènian-blind did.”
Jaro swallowed thickly. “Fair enough. You have my word to follow your lead on this.”
“We’ll discuss this more next month at our regular meeting time,” he replied before turning and walking out of the tavern. The Many willing the Worlds survive until then.