Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Refuge

Dear Mr. Quilas,

This morning, I began to read your new collection of essays, Forgotten Lives. I’ve enjoyed a number of your books previously, but this collection held a particular interest for me. Aned Heast, the subject of your third essay, “A Refuge in Juar,” held a personal interest and I looked forward to reading your piece about him. Sadly, I was disappointed. Your essay was riddled with misinformation and errors.

I’m sure you do not wish to be told that. Few writers want to be told they are wrong. Few people, in fact. One of the truths I’ve discovered in life is that many of us go to extraordinary lengths to avoid acknowledging our errors. I hope you are not such a person, Mr. Quilas. I hope you do not tear this letter up, or burn it. As I said, I have enjoyed your books. I think you’re a very fine historian. It is not my intent to chastise you or belittle you. Rather, I would like to help you get to know your subject.

I suppose if we are to continue, introductions are in order. My name is Laena Kae. Once, I was an author. I’ll not flatter myself and suggest that you have heard of me. I know you haven’t. My books have been out of print for at least twenty years and, when in print, they were mostly ignored. Nowadays, I am mostly retired from writing. I manage a letter or two like this one I am writing to you, but that is about it. I live in the Mountains of Ger. I own a small cottage there with my wife. We have a garden that grows too much for us and animals that demand too much of our attention. Two days a week, I work in the University of Mireea. I help visiting academics with their research. It is easy to get lost in the library, I am told.

Before I came to the Mountains of Ger, I led a very different life. Before, I was the official biographer of Captain Aned Heast, your essay’s subject.

I took the position in 1025, just over forty years ago. At the time, I was twenty-seven and very ambitious. I had to be. If I hadn’t been, I would’ve never gotten the job. As strange as it is to write now, given how few people remember him, there were once many academics and authors who wanted to be the official biographer of Aned Heast.

Heast’s objection to them all was simple. He did not want people to write about him. He thought there were better topics and more deserving people for writers to spend our time on. Indeed, Heast’s opinion was so firm in this regard that he would have declined my services if the soldiers he led had not supported my request.

I rode beside Captain Heast and his army, Refuge, for over a decade. After a while, I came to think of myself as one of them. I was taught how to fight. I saw parts of the world I didn’t know existed. I witnessed tragedies and sacrifice. I made friends and enemies. I watched people die and in turn, I killed people. And throughout it all, I learned about Aned Heast, a man whose struggle was not with one particular country, or person, but whose fight was against the shape of the world we lived in—a shape we all played a part in forming.

• • • •

In your essay, Mr. Quilas, you write that Heast was born in Gogair in 960. In fact, he was in born in 964. Likewise, you said he was an orphan, but he did not grow up in an orphanage. His parents were Jara and Maez Heast. They were horse breakers. They died in a fire in 971. After that, Heast lived with his aunt and uncle. His uncle was a blacksmith and Heast was his reluctant apprentice for five years. At the age of twelve, he took what he’d learned from his uncle and got a job with the mercenary army, Refuge.

Heast told me that he did not really understand what Refuge was. He said that in our first interview. At the age of twelve, he could read, but not well, and he knew very little about local politics, much less the world. What he did know was that Refuge was an army that people hired. He knew it had no loyalty to any country and no home to speak of. It was enough for him. What he mainly cared about was that Refuge was leaving Gogair. In the diaries of the two officers who accepted Heast’s application, the first noted that he was polite and that he was fit. The second said that he would require training in arms if he was to become a soldier in their army. Neither of the two officers saw a hint of the man who would, fifteen years later, become the youngest Captain of Refuge.

In the first year of Heast’s captaincy, Refuge defended a crumbling port in Tinalan against the Mad King’s army for six months. It is estimated that two thousand people were able to flee the purges taking place because of them. After that, Refuge drove the Great Horde of Ilaro Kato out of the Spires of Yaela, freeing it and its people from a despotic ruler for the first time in a decade. He then routed the Lords of Faaisha when they rode against the pacifist tribes on the Plateau in 995.

And in 997, Aned Heast led Refuge into Illate, where they were defeated by The Five Queens of Ooila.

He was presumed dead until he arrived in the town Juar, in the country Zoatia, six months later.

You were right, Mr. Quilas, to pick this moment in Heast’s life as the focus of your essay. It does define him. However, you were wrong when you wrote that Heast rode into the drought-stricken town. He walked. He didn’t own a horse, not then. He was broke. He’d lost everything in Illate. All that he owned he now carried. A sword that was nicked and chipped. Clothes that were a faded mix of black, gray, and white. A pack that was made from tough canvas and patched in places. Inside was an ugly knife and a few coins. One of the coins was made from iron, a currency mostly illegal by then.

When Heast reached the gates of Juar, he had not eaten for a day. He still had water, but it would run out before nightfall. Worst of all, though, was that Heast was tired. It was an acknowledgement he feared making in full. Once, he’d been able to march for months on scraps of food and soakings of water and very little sleep. But by the time he pushed open Juar’s unguarded gate, he knew that time was over. He was parched, hungry, and struggling awfully with his leg.

He had lost his left leg in the Battle of Illate. The witch, Anemone, had been forced to amputate it above the knee. A blacksmith whose name Heast never mentioned made him a unique metal replacement. But it was also heavy and awkward and Heast was not used to it. He no longer needed a cane, or a crutch to help himself walk, but he could not make his way through the world as well or easily as he’d once done. In the years that followed Juar, Heast would accept his new stride, accept it as part of him as much as his weathered face and sharp blue eyes. But on that day, he’d not accepted it. He was frustrated by his limp, tired by the weight of it, and more than a little full of self-loathing.

Juar fell around Heast, a physical replication of how he felt about himself, tired and rundown. There weren’t any people to be seen, but there were signs that until recently, the streets had been busy. The ground was torn up by wagons. He stepped around the dried shit of horses. The buildings he passed were wide open. Chairs and bottles and dirty plates could be seen, speckled with flies and other insects. It surprised him. Many of the drought-ridden towns he’d walked through on the way to Juar had been abandoned and boarded up, but that work had been done with a care and attention that spoke of a desire the townsfolk had to return.

About a quarter of the way into the town, Heast heard the voices of children. They came from ahead of him, from where a trio of wells had been dug.

After a while, a dozen children between the ages of eight and thirteen appeared. They had an old bucket attached to rope and were dipping it into one of the wells to pull up dirty water. Heast could see that it was dirty because they poured it into bottles at their feet. As a whole, the kids were a mix of gender and skin colour, being black and brown and white, but that was typical of Zoatia and its population. What was not typical was the children’s clothes. None of them fit right. They were too big, too small, ripped, and badly patched.

And none of them wore shoes.

The children watched Heast warily as he approached. He stopped half a dozen steps in front of them and asked politely where the inn was.

A girl answered him. He thought she was about ten, but she might have been eleven or twelve. She was thin and brown and had short dark hair. Her eyes were bold, though. There was a cut above one of them, the left one, long enough and deep enough that it would scar. It’d been made with a knife.

“Everyone stays in the orphanage,” the girl said. “Ostir makes us all stay there. He says no one can be just running around anymore.”

Heast had a lot questions, but instead he asked, “Where’s the orphanage?”

“I can show you.” She looked around at the other children. “But you’ve got to promise not to tell Ostir where we were.”

“Where were you?”

“Here.”

“Where?”

“At the well—” She broke off suddenly and offered him a suffering smile. “Funny.”

She led Heast down the road after that, led him past more tracks, more shit, and more open buildings. After a while, he turned to look at the wells again, to where the children had been picking up the bottles of water, and found them gone.

The orphanage was off the main road, down a few empty streets. It was a great big building, the oldest thing in the town. It’d been made from brick and stone and had once been a church, or so Heast suspected. It was true then, Mr. Quilas, as it is true now, that a lot of the buildings that were used to worship the gods when they were alive remained standing. The practice of planning towns around such buildings was an old one, even when Heast walked through Juar. He supposed that people thought it made them safer, that somehow a god’s power remained within it, but he admitted later that the thought might just be cynicism on his part. Because of the size of the orphanage, Heast would’ve found it without the girl’s help, but he was grateful for her guidance once inside. It was a labyrinth of halls that led to different floors and yards and he knew he would’ve gotten lost by himself.

The girl led Heast into a courtyard where a man rested on a sagging wicker chair in the shade. He had a glass of watered red wine next to him and a book face down in his lap. He was a big, solid white man, and he wore a dirty yellow robe. The slit in it revealed brown canvas pants. His boots, Heast saw, were a thick, solid leather, soldier’s boots.

“Who do you have there, Zafne?” the man asked, turning lazily as they approached. “I didn’t think we were expecting anyone today.”

“He didn’t tell me his name,” the girl said. “He just said he was looking for a room for the night.”

“I’ve money,” Heast said.

“Do you now?” He rose easily from his seat and held out his hand. “My name is Ostir Liss. I run this orphanage.”

“Aned Heast.”

Ostir’s handshake lost its strength. “The Captain of Refuge?”

“I’ve had that honour,” Heast said and released the other man’s hand. “But I don’t have it any longer.”

“I’d heard that you’d all died in Illate,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind me asking. There’s a story—”

“Maybe we could talk about it later? I’d like to find a room more than anything. I’ve walked here from the coast.”

“Of course. My apologies. My manners have dried up like the land you see. We’ve a room you can have. It’s not much, but you’ll have been in worse.” Ostir turned to the girl who was still standing beside Heast. “Zafne, you can go back to your friends. I’ll show Aned to his room.” The girl hesitated. Her attention had changed dramatically after Heast said his name. He thought it likely that she’d read one of those cheap novels about Refuge, the ones with garish yellow covers. The books were quite popular during Heast’s life, much to his disgust. In them, he and his now dead soldiers rode over cliffs without injury and said witty lines of dialogue to characterise themselves after they killed black-hearted villains. “Did you find Zafne out at the well with her friends?” Ostir asked after the girl had disappeared into the labyrinth of the orphanage.

“No, she was sitting on the stairs of the building,” Heast said. “I thought the town was deserted until I saw her.”

“That must be the first time she’s done the right thing since I’ve known her.” Ostir led the two of them into the hallway. “Ah, don’t mind me. She’s a smart girl, but I get cranky. The drought has made life hard.”

“But not impossible?”

“I guess that depends on who you ask. Nearly everyone left a week ago, but for me and the orphans here.”

“Why not take them and leave yourself?”

“And go where? I’ve no money myself.” Ostir attempted to sound casual, but his voice had a strained quality that caused it to echo strangely in the stairwell. Heast had heard the tone before in people with secrets to hide—and he knew Ostir Liss had secrets to hide. “But enough of that. We have two meals we share, breakfast and dinner. You’re welcome to join us for as long as you’re here.”

“It won’t be more than a few days,” Heast said. “But thank you.”

“The world is but a vision of what we’ve made. Isn’t that what the soldiers of Refuge say? I think I have it right.”

Through a window Heast could see a hill floating in the sky. It was broken and dry, torn out by a god thousands of years ago. There were three dead trees on it, dead like so many others he had passed on the road, like so much in his past. “There is no Refuge anymore,” he said quietly. “There’s just me.”

• • • •

What does a soldier become if he is no longer part of an army?

Aned Heast was thirty-three when he arrived in Juar. His entire adult life had been defined by the mercenary army, Refuge.

But there was no Refuge anymore. Heast had not lied when he told Ostir that. The banner that Refuge fought beneath would not be raised by a full army again until 1024. In the years before then, numerous captains would try to acquire the insignia to capitalise on its reputation, but Heast would never sell it.

The insignia of Refuge is not complex. It is split in half, the top of it coloured red, the bottom black. In the middle, there is an uncoloured map shaped in a globe. It is there, however, that Refuge became complex. The army has existed in one form or another for generations. The first iteration is said to have begun in the War of the Gods, thousands of years ago. Others claim that Refuge existed before even the war that ruined so much of our world, that broke our sun and turned our ocean black. Those people insist that Refuge was the creation of the God of War himself, that it was one of two armies he made to roam the world and engage in endless wars. Regardless of when or how it began, Refuge’s captains have always been keenly aware of the shifting landscape that they have existed in. Because of this, the map on Refuge’s insignia has changed as readily as explorers have found new parts of the world and cartographers like Samuel Orlan have added more details to world we know.

Refuge still exists. You note this in your essay, Mr. Quilas. You speak eloquently about the importance of the army. It was how you spoke about the world’s need for Refuge that convinced me to write to you, to correct your mistakes, when I might as easily have done nothing and complained to my wife instead of writing this letter. After all, Aned Heast is not the first Captain of Refuge to disappear from history. Few people remember Captain Denali, Captain Xanan, or Captain Ibori. To some degree, it is understandable. After all, it is not Captain Denali who destroys Gogair’s slave fleet, but Refuge. It is not Captain Xanan who rides into Ooila to confront the Innocent, but Refuge. It is not Captain Ibori who defends the lost royals of Faer, but Refuge.

But few captains have embodied Refuge like Aned Heast. All of the captains who came before him and who came after him have their own individual reputations, but none distilled the ideals of Refuge like Heast did. As a measure of the fear he struck in the rich and powerful, it is estimated that, in the last decade of his life, seventy-eight different assassination attempts were made.

• • • •

The young girl Zafne knocked on Heast’s door later that evening in Juar. The last of the broken sun was still up, but the first two parts were long gone. Somewhere before midnight, it would start to get dark, but that was hours away.

Heast had spent much of the afternoon asleep on a narrow bed. It had been a light sleep. His hand had never left the hilt of his ugly knife beneath the pillow.

He still held it when he opened the door.

“Ostir sent me,” Zafne said. “He said for me to bring you down to dinner. Did you drink any of the water?”

The clay jug was on the room’s one table. “No,” Heast said. “Should I have?”

She shook her head, but only just.

Heast did not press her. He didn’t need to. A young boy had brought the jug of water into his room while he slept. When the door opened, Heast had awoken, but had continued to lay still. The boy was white and skinny and wore a shirt that revealed a series of welts and cuts across his back. At the table, he spilt a little of the water when he put the jug down. It splashed over his hand. Without pause, the boy rubbed his hand frantically on the shirt and rushed out of the room, pulling the door loudly shut as he did.

In front of Zafne, Heast slipped his ugly knife under his shirt. She watched him do it without a word.

She led him through a new series of turning corridors and down a set of stairs into a large common room. She never rushed ahead of him, though Heast knew she was much faster than he was, and he appreciated that. Inside the common room there were nine tables. They were all long and they all had benches on both sides. The tables would’ve sat twenty or so people easily but only one was in use now, one in the middle.

Ostir sat there with nineteen ragged children around him. Heast recognised many of them from the well in the middle of town.

They sat quietly, but not peaceably. Many looked uncomfortable, hunched over the tables, or squirming to keep still. Very few looked at Heast or Zafne when they entered.

Zafne took a seat on one of the benches first. Children parted for her, made a spot that appeared to be her own. She was one of the few watching when Heast lifted his steel leg awkwardly over the opposite bench and pulled out his ugly knife. He set the knife down on the table before he sat down next to Ostir.

“You didn’t need to bring your own knife,” the other man said.

All the children were watching now. “I killed a man in Gogair with this knife,” Heast said, lifting the blade up. Its steel was the width of an adult’s palm and discoloured. The crosspiece was a simple piece of bronze, but it had lost all its shine. The handle had old, sweat-stained leather wrapped around it. “It was his. He owned it. He was a slaver. I must’ve been fifteen, maybe sixteen at the time. Not much older than those here. The slaver thought he could put a chain on me and take me to a market to sell.”

Ostir motioned for the food to be passed around. “The children don’t need more horror stories. They’ve heard enough already.”

He laid the knife back on the table. “Have they?”

“They have. And I’ve heard a lot of stories about you, Aned, but none of them—not one of them said you like to scare children.”

“I’m not here to scare children.”

“Then please show some restraint at the dinner table.” Ostir’s hand trembled slightly as he passed a bowl over. “I’m not trying to be rude, you understand. Why don’t you tell us why you came to Juar?”

The food was fresher than Heast thought it had a right to be. The water on the table was clean too, much cleaner than what the children had pulled from the wells. “I have a friend who lives in this town,” he said. “Well, lived, I guess. She sent a letter to me about a month ago inviting me to stay with her for a bit.”

Ostir forced a laugh. “A lover? That’s not fit for children either, I’m afraid. We’ll be forced to sing songs at this rate.”

“What was her name?” Zafne asked.

The table fell silent. Half the children stared at their plates, while the other half were torn between the girl and the two men opposite her. Before Heast could answer, Ostir stood and said, “This isn’t what we should be talking about,” but Heast did not turn his gaze away from Zafne. He saw the wound on her forehead again, saw how part of its scab had been torn off, as if she had been struck by someone.

“Ola Kidar,” he said.

No one said anything. Even Ostir’s voice failed him.

“She’s my mother,” Zafne said finally, said in a whisper. “She said she was going to write to you. She said you would—”

Zafne!” Ostir found his voice harshly. “I think that is well and truly enough from you. You know better. You’ll only upset the other children.”

“—she said you would come,” the girl continued. “She said everyone deserves refuge.”

Ostir began to speak again, began to reach for his full plate, to throw it at her, or shatter it on the ground, Heast wasn’t sure what exactly, but it didn’t matter. The man’s words never found their way out of him. Heast’s ugly knife punched into his stomach. Heast, his hand still on the knife’s hilt, but with one hand grabbing the back of Ostir’s robe, tore the knife through his stomach, ripped it open with such sudden violence that its contents spilt out across the table. All of the children in front of him, Zafne included, screamed.

Not long after that, Ostir Liss, one of the founding members of the mercenary group Solitude, died.

• • • •

It is with some sadness that I note that your essay does not contain this scene, Mr Quilas. Instead, you write that Ostir Liss fled Juar in the evening.

I can understand why you did not learn about what happened in the orphanage. Aned Heast was a man many admired, but a man who kills another in front of children so bloodily and so violently . . . Well, he is not to be admired. Yet, it is true. Heast told me so himself. He saw nothing wrong with what he did. He called it justice. Whenever I remember his words, I think of how complex the human spirit is, Mr. Quilas. It is a gray thing, shaded darker and lighter here and there, a spirit that will always surprise and disappoint.

Ola Kidar sent Heast a letter two weeks before he arrived in Juar. Heast did not know how she found him. He did not ask. In his experience, people in need found the Captain of Refuge one way or another. In her letter, Ola described how a weary and battle scarred Solitude arrived at Juar a month earlier. At first, she wrote, the mercenaries were welcomed. The two co-founders of Solitude, Ostir Liss and Baelst Finn, had been born in the town. Ola remembered both from her childhood. None of the other soldiers in Solitude had been born in Juar, but a number had been born in Zoatia. There were close to eighty soldiers, Ola estimated. They were frequently drunk, unhappy, and given to argument. Yet, when Ostir and Baelst gave orders to take over the town, the soldiers of Solitude followed them.

Heast was on the other side of Zoatia when Ola Kidar’s letter arrived. If you look at a map, go to the city of D’jnak in the north. It is one of Zoatia’s largest cities. Heast was but two hours from it, on a drought-ridden piece of land that a friend owned. From it, Heast could’ve walked to D’jnak much easier than he walked to Juar. In it, he could’ve found soldiers waiting to be hired.

But Heast did not go to the city.

Instead, he took food from the farmhouse and a sword that was not his own from the back of the building, and left.

It was dark when Heast stepped outside. He did not tell those who were with him that he was leaving. He did not tell the witch, Anemone, who had been caring for him. He did not thank the friend on whose property he had been resting. He did not ask Baeh Lok, the sergeant who carried him from the battlefield in Illate, for help.

He simply left.

I asked Heast why he went to Juar by himself, but he could not explain it. Once, he said he’d been gripped by a madness. After his defeat in Illate, he said, after nearly all of Refuge had died, the world had become like soft prison around him. He would push at it and it would move with him. Nothing broke. Nothing split. Nothing allowed him to escape his grief and shame. He thought that both Anemone and Lok were caught in a similar prison. It was why they did not stop him when he left. They both would’ve heard him leave. He was sure of that. Just as he was sure that they would’ve both known where he was going. “I guess you could say we were all looking for a way out,” Heast told me. “One way or another, Juar was mine.”

In Juar, Heast dragged Ostir out of the common room. Once the body was gone, the children, led by Zafne, told him that Baelst Finn and Solitude had left the town a week ago with twelve wagons full of townsfolk, including their parents. The soldiers had argued with each other beforehand. Some of them didn’t want to leave. Some didn’t want to take the townsfolk with them. Some of them thought they should bring the children. In the end, Baelst shouted orders and they fell into line. The only one who remained behind was Ostir. He told the parents that if they tried anything, he would kill their children.

Heast couldn’t run. He would have, if he’d had enough mounts for him and the children, but he didn’t. Worse, Zafne had shown him the cells that Solitude had made in a number of the buildings. They weren’t anything special, just holes dug into the ground, but they were big enough to hold another hundred children and a dozen adults who were too old to be taken to the slave market. In the pits were the dirty bottles that the children had been filling by the wells when Heast walked into town.

He needed a plan.

You had only a very little of it right, Mr. Quilas.

• • • •

In the morning, Heast took Ostir’s wicker chair outside the gate. There, with the first part of the broken sun high in the sky, he pushed the legs into the dirt and sat down.

He could see Solitude clearly on the horizon. They were a ragged line of silhouettes riding beneath a piece of broken, floating land. There were fewer than he thought there would be. He counted forty-three, maybe forty-six, but not the eighty odd he’d been expecting. There had clearly been a split in the market. Heast wondered what Baelst and his remaining soldiers would think when they saw Refuge’s banners fluttering from the walls. Hopefully, they would think that Refuge had survived Illate.

Normally, Heast was a patient man. On that day, though, he couldn’t keep his hands still. It was his first battle since he had lost his leg. To disguise his nerves, he took out his ugly knife and sharpened it on a whetstone.

Heast was not afraid to die. The sentiment was different from wanting to die. The truth was that Heast had seen too much death to fear it. When he slept, he often dreamed about the Battle of Illate, about being carried off the field, and about the bone saw the witch pulled from her bag. It was the last two that woke him, not the deaths of his soldiers. Over the last two decades, he had come to accept that soldiers died, no matter how hard it was for him, or for their families.

But there were the children.

They would not be killed if Solitude opened the gates, Heast knew. They would simply be subdued and taken to the slave market their parents had been sold at.

On the horizon, two riders detached themselves from the ragged column and rode towards Heast. After a while, he could make them out. The first of them was a lean black woman. She had shaved her head clean and had a series of piercings in her nose and ears. Heast didn’t recognise her, but he thought, as she drew closer, that she recognised him. The other rider was a white man running slightly towards fat. He had thick, greasy black hair and bright blue eyes.

Before they reached him, Heast hit the wall of Juar with the base of his ugly knife. A moment later, the sound of marching began to seep out.

The riders stopped in front of him a few minutes later.

“This him, Jaz?” the man asked.

“Yes,” the woman responded without hesitation.

“Aned Heast.” The man slid off his horse with a practiced ease. “The Captain of Refuge. I had heard you were dead.”

Heast laid his knife flat on the stone. “You must be Baelst Finn?”

“My fame precedes me.” The Captain of Solitude laughed. There was a hint of pleasure in the laugh, a pleasure born of arrogance. “I have to say, you look like a man who is half dead. What do you reckon, Jaz? This a man who looks like he has had one foot in a grave?”

“All you white people look like that,” she said. “The Captain is no different than when I last saw him.”

“Even the leg?” Baelst took a step toward. “If you want to hide that you’ve lost your leg, you gonna have to do—”

“I wouldn’t get close,” Jaz said.

“No?” He glanced at Heast’s ugly knife and laughed again, but this time, the laugh had no pleasure in it. “No, I suppose you’re right. He does have a reputation for being a bit unpredictable. Still, I have to ask, Aned. I really do, because you see, you’re sitting here. You look like a ghost. You really do look like a man half dead. Did you and your soldiers really survive that forsaken country you rode into?”

“Just lost a leg,” Heast said, pointing his dagger towards it. “It slows me down a little. I don’t march as fast, or put up a banner as quickly.”

“Yes.” Baelst didn’t follow the knife, but kept his gaze on the man opposite him. “I can hear the marching. I saw the banners as well. Though, truth to tell, the march sounds a little off and your banners look a little ragged.”

“So do your soldiers. I thought you had more. More to put up a fight with. I don’t enjoy slaughter.”

“Slaughter?” Baelst’s hand dropped to the hilt of his sword. “Why don’t you go get Ostir before I cut you down you—”

“I want to hear what the Captain has to say,” Jaz said, interrupting. “Remember what was said before we came down.”

“What you said.” Yet Baelst lifted his hand from his sword. “I said Refuge was dead. I still say they’re all dead.”

“I want to know who you sold the people to.” Heast directed his words not to Baelst, but to Jaz. “You tell me who bought them, you can start earning back your honour when you ride from here.”

Baelst laughed. “Honour?”

“Soldiers don’t sell people. You and I, we’re in this profession to stop people owning other people. We fight to break cages. We die so others aren’t weighed down by chains. It’s on our honour to ensure that.”

“You really believe that shit, don’t you?” The Captain of Solitude spat into the dirt. “Maybe that’s what you say in Refuge. Maybe all that honour you’ve got keeps your bed warm and purse full. It doesn’t do anything for me. It doesn’t mean anything to Ostir, either, so why don’t you go get him before I cut you down.”

“Soldiers don’t sell people.” Heast pushed himself up stiffly. He was taller than Baelst, but not taller than the woman on the horse. “Isn’t that right, Jaz?”

Before she could reply, Juar’s gate cracked open.

Zafne stepped out.

The sound of the children marching inside the town rose. Like all of them, Zafne had changed into her own clothes, into the pants and shirt her mother had purchased her for special occasions earlier that year. In her hands, she held Ostir Liss’ boots. They hadn’t been cleaned since Heast had killed him.

“What is this?” Baelst paled. “You killed Ostir? You can’t do that. You’re not supposed to do that. You—”

A sword punched through his neck.

Jaz pulled her sword out and wiped it clean with a piece of cloth. As she did, the marching behind the walls missed a beat and stopped suddenly. With a glance, Jaz looked up at the banners again. Surely, Heast thought, she could see what they were made of, could see that they were bed sheets marked with paint, clay, and other materials that they’d used to make the red and black. Surely she could see that the colours weren’t right in places. But when Jaz turned back to Heast, she made no mention of banners, or of the flawed marching that was starting up again. Instead, she gave him the name of a slaver and his boat. “I’ll leave the carts and the gold on the road,” she said. “You can send your soldiers to gather them after we’re gone.”

Heast spent the next eighteen months hunting down all the townsfolk who had been sold into slavery. Zafne would accompany him until the end. Her mother was the last of the townsfolk to be found. The young woman would return with her mother to Juar, but only for a few more years. The world was too big for Zafne Kidar after that. She wanted to see more of it and she did. She became a mercenary herself and died at the age of twenty-two in the streets of Gogair. It was said that she died defending two runaway slaves, but I cannot tell you that with certainty, Mr. Quilas. Her mother told me the story when I visited her some years later. She only had the secondhand story she had been told. She told me it after she took me out to the grave of her daughter, a grave in a dry land on the edge of drought again.

No one would hear of Solitude after it left Juar. The remaining soldiers separated. Many of them would die in small and ugly skirmishes in the next half a dozen years, but a few would live on. Of the mercenary Jaz, there is no history I can point to that explains her end. In Leviathan’s End, where the details of mercenaries are kept, there is no record of her death. She has simply been lost to history, to people like you and I.

We have to be honest when that happens, Mr. Quilas. You and I, we are beholden to truth. In your article, you write that outside the walls of Juar, Heast duels Baelst and defeats him in single combat. You do not acknowledge his desperate plan, the long night spent creating banners, gathering tools that could function as poles, and organising children into formations that they could march in. Instead, you give over to a cheap cliché, that of duel outside of a town, a duel that Baelst Finn would never have agreed to participate in.

The truth is a delicate thing. When I was younger, I thought it was robust. I thought it would defeat all falsehoods if it was repeated enough. I thought that because I grew up hearing stories about how truth is always triumphant, but it isn’t, not really. The truth is fragile. It is easily altered by elaborations, deceits and simplifications. It so easily becomes a falsehood, a piece of misinformation, or outright propaganda. Yet, because it is presented to us as a truth, when we react to it, we react to it as if it were real. We base our actions and our beliefs on it when what we are doing is basing our lives on nothing—and it is against this nothingness that you and I must stand, Mr. Quilas, for I fear if we do not it will become the foundations of our world. Like Aned Heast, you and I must stand against the world we see others making.

I look forward to your reply,

Laena Kae.

Ben Peek

Ben Peek is the author of seven books including The Godless, Twenty-Six Lies/One Truth, and Dead Americans and Other Stories. His short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Dimension Six, Nightmare Magazine, and various Year’s Best editions. He lives in Sydney, Australia.