Nothing was said as they were riding back until a short way from his house, Zarengor reined in sharply, bringing his pony in front of Ralik’s and forcing him to stop.
“Gods, I am sorry Ralik. You should not have had to do that.”
Ralik said nothing. It was true. He should not. Zarengor cursed and turned his pony back to the street. They rode on in silence for a while before the other man spoke again.
“I do not know what I am supposed to have done. These people seem to want to find me a monster.”
“You think it is nothing of your own making?” Ralik was unable to keep silent at that.
He found it unbelievable that Zarengor should think he owned no responsibility for the reactions he provoked in others.
“I know what I have done elsewhere. Well, what I am believed to have done elsewhere, but I have done nothing to harm so much as the fingernail of any Harkeran. I am here to fight their war with them and I will do so and win it for them too if we have even the most leisurely break of good fortune. You would think they might have some sense of that.”
Ralik moved to ride alongside him. It was strange to him to see this side of the man whose strength and self-confidence had once been more than an inspiration for him. It made him question again what he had been doing in Harkera.
“Why should they be grateful to you? They do not know you except by reputation. Perhaps when you have won their war they will be grateful.”
Zarengor looked into the gathering darkness and shook his head.
“Maybe. And maybe they will suddenly find me inconvenient, an embarrassment, something best put away as quickly and quietly as possible. Or am I getting too cynical?” He sighed slightly. “Tell me, Ralik, have you ever known happiness?”
Ralik’s thoughts instantly filled with a beautiful face whose storm-grey eyes held a depth of emotion he had never inspired in anyone before.
“I think so. But what man can ever call himself truly happy? The gods may take all we have in a moment,” he spoke quietly, but with conviction.
“Then perhaps happiness is not the goal, just a fleeting side-effect of other events in life. Perhaps the goal is something altogether more straightforward.” Zarengor fell silent a moment and the sounds of the evening streets closed in: a shout of laughter, a woman shrieking, a child crying, two dogs fighting. “What really matters to you Ralik? What do you steer your life by? What principle or creed governs your direction?”
The questions took Ralik by surprise. They were not the kind of questions one fighting man asked of another and they were questions he suspected that the Vavasor in a sober state would never have asked of him. He was tempted to say nothing, to let the moment pass. But, for some reason, the questions had touched upon the disturbing thoughts and events in his own life in recent days and he found himself considering them almost without meaning to do so.
“Honour,” he said stoically. It was the answer he would have given in all honesty until a few moons ago. But now? Well, now he knew there was something he held higher than honour, although he was not sure he could admit it to anyone else and he would still never forsake honour lightly.
“Oh yes, honour,” Zarengor said and sounded weary of the word. “We were brought up with it as our wet-nurse’s milk, you and I. Honour for ourselves, our families, our lord, our clan, our city – a desolate field is honour. Can it put food in the mouths of the hungry? Can it heal the wounds of the injured? Can it make Castellans strong and merchants wealthy? We make whores of ourselves for honour.”
Ralik was shocked.
“Without honour, what is a man?” It was the creed he had been born to and Ralik could recite its catechism as well as any other nobleman from the north. Zarengor looked at him directly for the first time in the conversation.
“I am not sure, Ralik, but I am beginning to think that without honour a man becomes something more. That without honour, he is free to choose the best way to live.”
“Then perhaps that would be a new way of honour,” Ralik suggested.
“Or perhaps it would be a new way of living.”
Nothing more was said until they dismounted at Zarengor’s house, a small but well-appointed courtyard residence in the wealthiest quarter of the city, close beside the residence of Ralik’s own Castellan. He had taken this house after the attempt on his life for greater security. The Vavasor threw the reins to the hands of a stable lad and strode towards the house.
“I am not to be disturbed,” he informed the guard at the door, then paused and turned to say briefly: “Good-night Ralik, I will not keep you up on my account any longer tonight – and thank you.”
From Times of Change the second volume of Transgressor Trilogy, a Fortune’s Fools book by E.M. Swift-Hook. You can listen to this on YouTube.
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