Alone, without Alanna, Marrus walked toward the gates of Horen. He had hidden his sword and bow and his body was tingling with vulnerability. The only weapon he carried now was a tiny sheathed knife in his sock. To calm his nerves, he tried studying the people around him. There were traders with carts and oxen and sometimes a few sullen bodyguards. There were some lone travelers. There were also two families, one quiet and one out of control. The parents were detaining a little red-headed girl who kept trying to run away. It took Marrus several minutes to think up what villages were nearby; his conception of the surrounding landscape was suddenly fuzzy. He touched his head, wondering if his intelligence was seeping out of him along with his strength.
“I don’t want to go in!” the red-headed girl was screaming furiously. “I don’t want to! This city is terrible!”
Marrus only started paying attention to the girl when he saw how the guards were treating her and the rest of the children. Their searches of the adults were perfunctory: lazy pats here and there that would probably have missed items much larger than Marrus’s knife. But they searched the children carefully, as if for defects in merchandise.
Inside the city, Marrus sat in a small tea shop and read the tiny scroll of paper that contained Darius’s exact instructions. There were no surprises. Marrus knew that he was only drinking tea and reading over the plan to forestall the inevitable. Taking some big breaths, Marrus tore the paper into smaller and smaller pieces while he waited for the caffeine to take effect. Eventually he went back up to the counter and got a refill from the man there.
Marrus stopped abruptly when he reached his table. The red-headed girl was sitting squished into the corner, her arms wrapped around her knees. A thin trail of blood was coming out of one of her nostrils. The shreds of Darius’s instructions still lay on the table. The girl looked up at him with wet blue eyes and said in a tiny voice, “Help me.”
For a few moments Marrus stood there without saying anything. Then he swept the shreds of paper into the cup of tea. He took the mug to the counter, left it there, and walked out of the shop. He had lingered too long.
While he walked, he thought about the red-headed girl and tried to figure out what was going on. Her tantrum was nothing unusual, and seeing the same girl in the tea shop a few minutes later, while strange, was also explainable. Children often ran and hid from their parents. They cried for fear of punishments they would receive when they were caught. Their noses sometimes bled. All of this made sense, but Marrus dwelled on it anyway.
Some time later, he looked up and realized he had arrived at the House of Redemption. A long line of waiting supplicants snaked from the distant gilded doors all the way down the wide stairway to the boulevard where Marrus stood. He spent a few minutes examining the column of sinners, which appeared to be unmoving, and eventually left with a feeling of relief. The idea of standing under the hot sun next to people whose savior he meant to kill was repellant. Marrus knew he was still procrastinating, but he was hungry. He thought maybe food would make him feel better.
He half expected to find the little red-headed girl tucked into one of the dim corners of the pub he entered, but she was not there. He imagined the girl running of out the darkness and grabbing him around the legs, begging for his help. He imagined himself hoisting her up into his arms and telling her it would all be okay, they were getting out of this place. Then they would leave horrible Horen for good and he would start a new life as a—what? A father? A big brother? The fantasy imploded and Marrus was left staring at the bartender, who was smirking and waving a hand slowly back and forth to get his attention. “Can I help you?”
Marrus took a seat at the bar and ordered food. While he waited he kept looking over his shoulder at the other patron, who was cloaked and hooded and silent. When another robed man entered and also sat behind him, Marrus got nervous enough to tell the bartender he was changing seats and went to the back. The man smirked and said, “Jumpy?” and Marrus responded without humor. He hated that word.
Then, when Marrus took his new seat, the patron who had just entered leaned toward him. “M?” he said, sounding incredulous. “Does your name start with the letter, ‘M’?” He laughed, not loudly, but in the near silence of the place Marrus saw the other patron and the bartender both jump. “Does it end with an ‘S’? No! No way. No way. This is just too fucked up.”
Marrus sat very still. As the man got up and walked over, Marrus slipped a hand into his pocket and grasped the knife. The man sat down in front of him. He adjusted his hood just enough so that Marrus could see his face, and placed his palms on the table.
“Fuck it!” the man said, and tossed back his hood. “I’m not hiding from anyone anymore.”
He was still easy to recognize. He had grown his bright blonde hair out, and the look suited him—he had always been too pretty for the military cut of the others.
“Jarmin,” Marrus said tightly. “Somehow, you still look exactly the same.”
Jarmin chuckled. “Don’t I? I think I was meant for long hair. I think, in a way, I had long hair all along. Long hair in spirit, if that makes any sense.”
Marrus had nothing to say to this.
“That was just one of many things I couldn’t stand about Darius,” Jarmin went on. “Not the most profound thing, but the most personal thing, if you follow me.”
Marrus didn’t reply. The bartender, silent, walked over to them and set Marrus’s plate of lamb chops down on the table.
“Wait,” Jarmin said, laughing again and clearing his hair out of his eyes. “Wait, wait. I still don’t think we’ve acknowledged how fucking strange this is. I mean, man, what are you doing out here?”
“I’d ask the same of you,” Marrus said. “Deserter.”
Jarmin conceded this with a nod. “You say it as though I did something wrong.” He paused, then added, “Old friend.”
“I’m not your friend,” Marrus said quietly. “Not anymore.”
“I know,” Jarmin said, resting his chin on his palm and looking away. “Unfortunately, unfortunately.”
“Darius wants you dead,” Marrus said. “He wants you brought back and hanged.”
“I’m sure he does,” Jarmin replied. “The proud fool. He could never stand anyone challenging him. And now—here I am, living peacefully, enjoying myself, existing according to my own principles. The ultimate challenge.”
“You took an oath.”
“Yes, yes.” Jarmin unwrapped his silverware and gestured at Marrus’s plate with a serrated knife. “You mind?”
“Go ahead.” Underneath the table, Marrus gripped his own weapon hard.
“Don’t look so tense!” Jarmin said. He looked at the knife in his hand, then set it down on the table and scooted it slowly off the edge until it clattered to the ground. “My days of violence are over, even if yours aren’t.” Jarmin stabbed his fork through the middle of the lamb chop and lifted the entire piece of meat to his mouth.
Both of them said nothing for some time. Marrus continued to grip his knife while Jarmin attacked the lamb chop. A drop of grease trickled through his blonde stubble.
“Right, what were we saying?” He wiped the grease away. “Yes: oaths. After some thought I’ve concluded that you have to choose to live according to either honor or morality. Not both, unfortunately. The two frequently coincide, though, so it’s easy to fool yourself. I thought I was able to live by both for much of my life. My morals told me some obvious things: protect the weak and the innocent, destroy the corrupt, fight for—you know all of it, I’m not going to repeat it. And my honor—well, since the oaths I took said a lot of these same things, I figured the choices I had to make in life would be relatively simple. But it turned out that all the oaths really said was “Obey the orders of Darius.” Do you see what I mean? So then, when Darius started giving orders like, ‘Protect the corrupt,’ and ‘Destroy the weak and innocent,’ I started to get really confused.” Jarmin made a fist with one hand and slammed it against his open palm several times, apparently to illustrate his confusion. The noise was incredibly loud. Marrus saw the bartender and the other patron flinch again.
“So there was all this tension, in my head,” Jarmin continued, significantly more loudly. “I had to make the choice between honor, and morality. It was a harder choice than it should have been, but, well, I was young and stupid.”
“You killed Torric and Damien. In their sleep. You cut their throats.”
Jarmin made an apologetic gesture. “There again, I suppose I chose morality rather than honor. Those were some fucked up humans, as I’m sure you can agree.”
“They were my friends.” Against his will, Marrus began to tremble. His whole body felt hot and his hunger had disappeared. Marrus looked at Jarmin’s face, his neck. His palms open on the table. Everything so exposed.
“I spared Alanna,” Jarmin said, appearing unaware of all of this. “That was a triumph of neither morality nor honor, but something else, I guess. But I’m sure you’ll forgive me that. We can relate on that account. Well, kind of.”
Marrus focused on breathing. “Don’t even say her name.”
“An especially sensitive topic right now, I’m sure. That business with the boy—the boy you killed? And the spirit that violated her?” Jarmin smiled thinly, and when the smile dropped from his face his humor was gone. “I know why you’re here,” he said flatly. “Doing Darius’s dirty work. Killing some ‘corrupt’ individual, I’m sure. Why? You probably don’t even know. Give it up, Marrus! Nothing is compelling you. You could vanish right now and never hear from the Brotherhood ever again. Start a new life. Start life.”
Marrus stared at Jarmin. “If you’ve done anything to Alanna, I swear I’ll—”
“I’ve done nothing, and you won’t. Don’t have any illusions, Marrus. You were always one of the better ones, not as impressionable as the rest, and I respected you as much as I could. But stand up, raise that ridiculous little knife you’ve been clutching, and I’ll kill you. With my hands. Easily.”
Marrus leaned forward. “Jarmin, please. I need to know where Alanna is and what happened to her. Surely we understand each other this much at least. I need to find her, and help her. She’s going to die otherwise.”
Jarmin’s face clouded. Carefully, he wiped his hands on his napkin, crumpled it, and set it on the table in front of him. “You have no right,” he said, clenching his mouth. “You have no right to anything, do you understand? Least of all to Alanna. She’s a human being, with thoughts and feelings and desires of her own. I am too. You, though…” Jarmin stood up and pushed his chair in. “You’re something else.” He walked toward the door. “Goodbye, Marrus.”
It was only then that Marrus realized he was alone. The bartender and the other patron had vanished. When Jarmin opened the door and passed through it, the dark shapes of soldiers crowded into the room.
Biography: Myles Buchanan grew up in Portland, Oregon and is currently studying English at Kenyon College. A lifelong fan of the fantasy genre, he is especially inspired by the work of J.R.R Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, and Christopher Paolini.