Petronus and the boy sat down with the paper as soon as they closed themselves into the barn. They’d hit the outskirts of Kendrick as night fell, and had happened across the farmer.
“I’ve a coin for the use of your barn,” Petronus said.
The farmer approached their wagon, squinting to see them in the fading light. “Are you from Windwir? What news do you bring?”
Petronus climbed down from the seat. The boy watched, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “The city is gone entirely. The Entrolusians are warring with the Gypsies. I’m not sure why.”
The farmer nodded. “Androfrancines, then?”
“I’ve worked for them on occasion. My name is Petros.” He turned to the boy and caught a glimpse of a smile when he gave his name. “This is my grandson.”
“I’m Varn,” the farmer said, extending his hand. Petronus shook it. “You can keep your coin. These are rough times for the Order. Sheltering you is the least I can do.”
After they’d settled in, and after they’d torn into a basket of fresh bread, pickled asparagus and roast rabbit that Varn had brought out to them, they filled their metal cups with wine from one the wagon’s three barrels and sat down with the paper by lamplight.
Before Petronus could ask, the boy scribbled quickly onto the paper and held it for him to see. My name is Neb, it read.
“It’s good to finally know your name,” Petronus said. “How did you come to be in Sethbert’s care?”
For the next two hours, Petronus asked the questions and Neb answered them, his hand working hard to keep up with the old man’s tongue. Petronus took it all in-Neb’s eyewitness account of the city’s fall, his capture by the Delta Scouts, what he’d heard the soldiers talking about, what the redheaded lady had said… and how she’d tried to take Neb with her.
Sethbert destroyed Windwir. He had to read those words three times. “Do you have any idea how?” Neb shook his head.
Petronus pondered this. He’d paid someone, promised something, made some of kind deal to get his hands on the spell. The wasteland where the city once stood had to be the work of Xhum Y’Zir’s Seven Cacophonic Deaths. Somehow, the Androfrancines had put the fragments together and Sethbert had used it to his advantage. Somewhere along the way, all of the intricate safeguards, the locked boxes and
vaults, the subterfuge of two thousand years of protecting humanity from itself, had failed.
If I’d stayed, this would not have happened.
Petronus felt a hand at his sleeve and looked down at the paper. Can I ask you some questions? Neb had written there. He nodded. “Please.”
Why did you stop me?
Petronus put his hand on Neb’s shoulder and looked him in the eye. “If I could see your scheming, it was only a matter of time before one of Sethbert’s scouts or guards picked up on it. How did you imagine you’d be able to assassinate one of the most powerful men in the Named Lands?”
Petronus watched Neb’s face. The corner of his mouth twitched and his eyes shifted. It was obvious that he was wrestling with how much truth to give. “You don’t have to say, son.”
The boy’s hand reached into his shirt and came out with the pouch. Petronus recognized it immediately and chuckled. “Clever,” he said. “But that alone wouldn’t have seen you to safety, even if you’d managed to kill the sed eve bastard.”
But even as he said the words, Petronus realized that the boy didn’t care at all about being seen to safety. That hardness in his eyes, and once more, the line of his face, said without words that Neb would’ve gladly traded his life for that of the mad Overseer.
“Listen well,” Petronus said. “Taking a life-even a life like Sethbert’s-robs your own soul in the end. I agree with you that he deserves death for what he’s done. A thousand deaths couldn’t be enough. But Androfrancines do not kill,” he said. Unless you’re the Pope, he thought. Unless you merely give the words to the most seasoned captain of your Gray Guard and close your eyes and pretend that there is no connection between your own words and the deeds of others.
He felt the tug at his sleeve again and looked down. I am not an Androfrancine.
“No,” Petronus said, “I suppose you are not. But someday you may be. And last year’s ghosts haunt next year’s forests.”
The boy thought about this, then wrote more. Petronus read it. “What now? I don’t know. I suppose I’ll try to find someplace for you to stay here in Kendrick. I’m only here long enough to rally some men, and then I’m back to Windwir.”
When the boy looked at him, eyebrows raised in question, Petronus’s felt his own jaw tighten. “I’ve a city to bury,” he said in a quiet voice.
The boy scratched more words onto the tablet, and Petronus was surprised to see it was a statement, not a question.
I know who you are, Father, the crisp handwriting declared, starkly black on the gray paper. Petronus stared at the words and said nothing, knowing his silence said enough.