Bait and Cycles
When Keedar reached his home on Nissa’s Road, sandwiched between an abandoned tavern and a warehouse, his father was waiting at the door. Antelen loomed large in the sky, casting its silvery glow on Keedar’s surroundings. The house was sturdier than most in the Smear, but from the outside it appeared as a ramshackle mess, eaves broken, paint peeling, green showing on the warped wood like moldy bread. Bricks and mortar hid underneath that façade, painstakingly placed there by his father and Uncle Keshka over a number of years. Although the shutters were missing one or two wooden slats, it was difficult at best to tell if someone lived there. Black paint covered the windowpanes inside and out.
“You did good today,” Delisar said before stepping aside.
“Thank you, Father.” Keedar entered and closed the door behind him, making sure to turn the key in the lock, and slide home both the top and bottom bolts.
“I picked up some beef stew with potatoes and rice for dinner. I already had mine. Yours is on the table.”
Keedar headed toward the dining area. Candles threw light along the way, barely enough to see by. Books lined the shelves against the walls: reminders of his father’s insistence on education. He sighed as he considered the lecturer who would come to pay a visit in the morning. Not that learning about the world and learning in general didn’t fascinate him, but he preferred to be alone on the rooftops or run within the Parmien Forest. Solitude suited him.
Within those woods, within the wilds, he reveled. Unlike in the citadel’s confines, the forest was where he belonged. Ever since the first days he ventured into them. Ever since he picked up one of Father’s books and traced his fingers along the drawings of woods and fanged mountain peaks, lands with scorching sands, blue seas, green seas, black seas, seas covered in ice. Fascinated by it all, he devoured Father’s teachings. Often he wondered how much the connection resonating in his bones to the wild had to do with what or who he was.
“Wash those hands.” Father’s voice cut him from his thoughts.
Groaning under his breath, Keedar stripped off his derin leather gloves. Dirt encrusted his palms and showed black under his fingernails. He sniffed. His odor wasn’t the best either, but his stomach insisted a bath could wait, particularly after he passed the open doorway from which the spicy scents wafted. He almost stopped when he spotted the bowl on the table, steam rising from its contents. Instead, he continued on to the kitchen where he washed his hands in a basin. After emptying it, he refilled the container from the barrel of fresh water. By the time he made it to the dining room and sat, Father was lounging on a chair a few feet from the table
Keedar dragged out his own seat. Hunger gnawed at his stomach as he dug in. It was always like this when he melded. Soul magic took as much physical energy as it did mental, sometimes more of either depending on the area of concentration. He was on his fourth mouthful of stew, licking his lips, when Father began with his questions.
“So what did you make of those two?”
Keedar swallowed the food before he answered. “Not much but they deserve some respect for coming here.”
“Not impressed then?”
“No. Seemed like your typical nobles. Too arrogant to understand the trouble they were in.”
“Yet, they still followed you.”
“They had no choice.” Keedar scooped up some potatoes and rice, knowing he was downplaying the two boys. At first, he’d thought them stupid, but he realized he’d been oddly drawn to them, especially Winslow.
“Word is they had quite a bit to say about you. Gaston in particular. You fascinated him.”
“Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“Yes. Now, all we do is wait.” Father grew silent, eyes distant, lost in his thoughts and schemes.
“What is it that you want with the count?”
“To discover what he knows of us. And what his plans might be. He blames everyone but himself for his past, but most of all he lays his losses at our feet. Your uncle considers him our greatest threat.”
Keedar continued to eat. Sometimes he wished he could get into Delisar’s head. He couldn’t say he understood everything his father did, but much of it seemed to be centered on Mother or at least her death. At times like this, he wondered what she had been like. Father told his share of stories, and through them Keedar used his imagination. Most of the time that wasn’t enough. Seeing other children with their mothers didn’t help. When he asked his father about her death, the answer would be that she died well. Father promised to reveal all he knew one day. Hopefully, one day would be sooner rather than later.
When he finished his meal, he washed it down with water. Father was leaning back with his eyes closed.
“Are you sure this was the right choice? Letting them think I can meld? I feel like bait.” He’d been skeptical of the plan from the start, but he was also willing to do whatever his father considered necessary.
“You should. It’s what you are. No need to worry, your uncle and I will protect you.”
“Perhaps now would be a good time to teach me more than soul’s cycles.”
Delisar opened his eyes and sat up. “That’s dictated by you, not by anyone else. The faster you learn—”
“And the more I train, the better and stronger I’ll grow. In turn, more cycles will become available to me.” Keedar recited more loudly than he intended. He let out a frustrated breath. “It just seems to be taking forever. Couldn’t you induce it like they say in the books?”
“That’s the problem with books. They can make some things sound so easy.” Father held his gaze. “I doubt I have the skill to increase your cycles that way, not without exhausting your soul, which in turn could kill you. I’m not willing to take that risk, and neither should you. You’re trying to force this as you sometimes do when we spar. I keep telling you, you don’t always have to use the edge of the blade; the blunt side can be just as useful. Whether from a severed throat or a broken skull, dead is dead.”
Keedar groaned. When Father started with the sayings, matters only became more difficult. Still, if he managed to convince Delisar … “What of Uncle Keshka? He could do it, couldn’t he? You always say how much stronger he is than you.”
Father rolled his eyes. “He probably could.”
Excited at the prospect, Keedar opened his mouth.
“But he will refuse you.”
“He believes you should develop naturally. It could prevent future issues. Those induced tend to have shorter life spans.”
Always some obstacle or another. Still, hearing about Uncle Keshka fascinated him. The man was as mysterious as the rest of the world outside Kasandar. Supposedly he’d even crossed the Renigen Sea at one time. On the docks, Keedar had listened to many stories from the few sailors who’d made the trip. They spoke of the wonders in the Farlands: the creatures, foods, and strange peoples.
“How many cycles does he have?”
“Eight, as far as I know.”
Keedar whistled. Eight. Two more left. The books said only one type of creature possessed ten cycles. The thought brought back memories of flames and scales. He suppressed the worst of the images and considered his own growth.
The trauma he experienced with Mother had awoken sintu—the first cycle. It allowed him to sense his own soul energy, to hold it steady. Years of practice had taught him how to control it. The near-death experience with the derin had triggered his second: koren. With it, he’d been able to hide his soul. According to his father, being able to use koren shouldn’t have made him impress his will upon other people, but somehow it had. Keedar often wondered if he’d triggered an inner cycle or opened the first of his abilities. His father denied knowledge of any such change, stressing that one needed six cycles, namely all the outer and median ones, to meld. Almost as annoying was father’s refusal to test him for exactly what type of melder he might grow to be. The limitations set not only by Delisar but also by Uncle Keshka were one of the main reasons Keedar frequented the rooftops.
“You’re thinking too much on it.”
“I can’t help myself.”
“Trust me, I know how you feel.”
Keedar doubted Delisar could relate. “Father?”
“How many more of us are out there?”
Father shrugged, broad shoulders sagging more than usual. “I’m not sure. A few hundred? A thousand? Hopefully enough.”
To Keedar, the numbers were as dreary as the candlelight flickering on the table. “And the King’s Blades? Will they ever acknowledge their heritage?”
“We can only hope they will.”
Confused, Keedar frowned.
“I see the question on your face. Why would they still support the King? Men will do much for a chance at riches and power. Including betray their own. Despite many of their origins beginning in the Smear, has that stopped the Blades from killing or arresting one of us, knowing that person could well be their parent? No. Have the deaths on the Day of Accolades ever stopped the parents who wished to give up their children? No. The promise of a better life is a great temptation, no matter how deceiving.”
“Success and survival means everything. Trust no one, betray everyone if need be.” Keedar quoted the Consortium’s mantra.
“How can anyone live like that?”
“I often asked myself the same thing,” Father said, regret seeping from his tone, “then I considered us here in the Smear. If we lived that type of a life centuries ago, we would be more than myths and whispered secrets today. Our people wouldn’t be forced to hide like rats in a sewer or waiting to be harvested like some crop. Better to live how we do than to end up bound in a box.”
Keedar shuddered as he considered his father’s words. “If that’s true, then why risk exposing me? Exposing all of us?”
Father bowed, shaking his head. “Your uncle’s plan. We have him and your mother to thank for the few of us alive today. Even if it’s only living in squalor or fear, we’re still free. One day we will regain what we lost.”
The mere mention of Mother brought a surge of pain to Keedar. Although he remembered little of her, he couldn’t help the emotions. They were as natural as the essences of a person’s soul flowing around their body.
“I see the hurt in your face, son. It will pass. No one knows that better than me.” Delisar stood and got into first position, eyes closed, both hands forming a loose circle away from his body. “Come, meditate with me for a while, it will help.”
Keedar followed his father’s lead. With meditation, the process in which one touched soul magic slowed tremendously. He sensed all thirty-two vital points around his body, contained within wispy circles, one inside the other. Those circles held the ten cycles: the three outer, the three median, and the four inner. The latter were an undistinguishable muddle to him. Of the other cycles, five were as clear as a cloudless summer sky, waiting for him to pull on whichever he needed. He longed for the day he could touch his shi, the final median cycle that would make him a melder.
He applied pressure, nudging open the points wider. Soul gushed out, forming a thick nimbus. Drawing on sintu, he controlled the flow, spreading it evenly around his body. It brought on an immediate sense of relaxation, of completeness. In moments, he was drifting away, weightless, a leaf carried by the currents of his soul.
“At first light, I need you to map routes for a few merchants,” Delisar said. “Consider it as punishment for not sensing my presence today.”
Keedar suppressed a groan. Expressing his displeasure would only get him into deeper trouble. He concentrated on his sintu, dreaming of when that last cycle would become available.