I am heartily sorry for the delay. It has been a busy weekend. I beg your patience and forgiveness.
Continued from Chapter Five: Part Four.
Jarvela Gunnar ruled gangs. He was born in Kunigsgrad, back when it was called Seafasten, in the later days of the war. The streets were most dangerous then, and he called the streets home. Jarvela lived by his wits, staying alive by keeping ahead of the other urchins. It always felt to him like he had more than the usual rationing of wit. People he knew back then all seemed slow and stupid. He made them into a gang, for their protection and his own. Then, in the shortest version of a long and painful story, though, the gang all died, killed by a larger and more powerful gang. Jarvela survived. After spending a week of night drinking he armed himself, making ready to storm the house of his enemies. He wanted to end his life. As a return, he wished only to take a few of them with him.
Any other option sickened him with grief. He would not go on. He would not go back. But over his last bottle of rum, taken in a tavern before making his attack, a person confronted Jarvela, suggesting a different option.
The man called himself Kyouki no Uma. He had sleek black hair grown long, thin eyes that slanted at the edges, and skin colored like unbleached silk. He smelled like mint, wore sleek clothing, and stood taller than Jarvela. He looked out of place in the dark wood of the tavern, stained with smoke and worn to sleekness by hundreds of years of people walking around the room. Jarvela stood at the bar, his third clay cup of rum in his hand, and he angled his head to the mint smelling man who looked out of place in the tavern—far too clean, far too distinguished. Castles and fine halls would be Kyouki no Uma’s natural environment. Kyouki looked sideways at Jarvela and smiled crookedly, twisting his trimmed goatee.
“You’re shitting me, little man,” Jarvela said, raising his rum to his lips. Kyouki had just offered Jarvela a job. He had not yet said what job. It didn’t matter. Jarvela didn’t want a job. It was common for refined men of money to hire men like Jarvela to do the violent things they lacked the spine to do themselves. Jarvela would have been interested any other day. He just wanted to be left alone today. “Find some other schill, little man,” he said.
“You haven’t heard the job yet,” Kyouki said, his voice low and perfectly pronounced.
“Step off,” Jarvela said. “You’ve picked a bad day.”
“I think it’s the perfect day,” Kyouki said. “As I understand it, your enemies have deprived you of your allies and you have nothing left to do for yourself.”
Kyouki said the words evenly, without spite, without a hint of bragging. Only Jarvela’s enemies would know what Kyouki said.
“Tread carefully,” Jarvela said, lowering his voice and his cup of rum. His axe hung at his waist. He readied himself to use it.
“I’m not one of your enemies,” Kyouki said.
“You’re sniveling enough to be one of them,” Jarvela said.
“Jarvela Gunnar,” Kyouki said, a name he should not have known. Jarvela never used his real name back then. Kyouki’s smile softened. “Do you remember your first cloak?”
That cloak had been the first Jarvela had met Kyouki no Uma. Kyouki had given Jarvela his first cloak—a wool cloak, grey, soon stolen. After several days of thought, Jarvela did take the job Kyouki offered. He found he preferred it to dying. At first, Jarvela had acted as Kyouki’s valet and bodyguard, traveling with Kyouki. Kyouki went everywhere inside of the first few months, getting in the worst kind of scrapes. Kyouki would start fights everywhere. They would enter bars, and Kyouki would empty bottles of wine himself. He’d raise a ruckus and he and Jarvela would be forced to fight their way back to the street. Jarvela wondered from the first days what Kyouki wanted with a bodyguard. He could take care of himself, and more. Kyouki started teaching Jarvela things, in fact. Not just fighting, though Jarvela and Kyouki saw most eye-to-eye about that. Kyouki had a broad understanding of history, philosophy, logic, geometry, and all the old stories. Education had never either appealed to or wholly revolted Jarvela once he had a chance to learn from Kyouki he found his curiosity grew daily. He plagued Kyouki with questions and Kyouki fielded them with the patience of one who felt they had all of eternity to answer. And, sometimes, Kyouki would volunteer a piece of information: “I rather like to collect ghost stories,” he said more than once, and, more than once, he asked for new ones from the people they met on the road.
Jarvela continued, nominally, to be Kyouki’s bodyguard, though the idea of “employment” faded. They traveled to all corners of the world. They traveled to the farthest south and raised hell with the pirate lords, which Jarvela thought was stupid. Not as stupid, however, as the next few months when they went to the eastern isles and wandered the Savage Lands, bothering werewolves and the primal natives. From there they spent almost a year zigzagging gradually westward across the great plains in the middle of Eardbána, sampling beers, women, and brawling through towns. Jarvela sometimes wondered what drove Kyouki. Most days, he allowed the journey to be its own adventure. Other days he inquired what they were doing. Kyouki always answered that particular question with some sociopolitical question--who is the king? What is justice? Does anyone speak for the voiceless? The question started some only slightly related discussion, and Jarvela let it go. He presumed that Kyouki meant to tell Jarvela abstractly what the point it by the discussion. Jarvela had not divined the answer yet. Perhaps there was no answer and Kyouki was merely mad; that made more sense most days.
The Gelodra Mountains in the west slowed their journey, as winter had fallen upon them by the time they reached the foothills. Instead of stopping, Kyouki stocked up on whiskey and forged ahead, keeping Jarvela slightly tipsy through the whole trek through the passes. Jarvela remembered very little of the Gelodra days. He remembered, in their drunkenness, singing loudly enough to cause a few avalanches, and he remembered fighting bears that sparked from the mouth and bears that seemed a little too smart, and he vaguely remembered fighting monsters. He mostly remembered bitching about the cold and drinking more whisky.
“It was not wise to go into the mountains in winter,” Jarvela grumbled during a blizzard. He couldn’t tell if it was day or night. The world had greyed out. The warmth of a half of bottle of whisky kept him riding.
“Wisdom is subjective,” Kyouki said. “A man’s intentions inform the wisdom of his actions.”
“You haven’t told me what your intentions are,” Jarvela said, frowning.
“You can only decide the wisdom of your own actions, then,” Kyouki said, nearly shouting to be heard over the wind.
The whisky lasted just long enough to get them through the mountains out into the lush jungle in the western shadows of the Gelodra Mountains. Jarvela had always feared Kyouki would take them this way. They hiked through the jungle, where it rained constantly. Kyouki said they were fortunate it rained. The barbarians living in the jungle stayed indoors when it rained. Jarvela had despised the rain.
Eventually they passed from the jungle. The trees thinned and eventually disappeared. Then, with a suddenness almost like ocean breaching shoreline, they reached hot desert.
“You miss the rain now, I think,” Kyouki said, surveying the seemingly infinite sands with an ironic smile.
“Lord of chaos, you’re a crazy bastard, Kyouki,” Jarvela said.
They rode south along the edge of the desert, keeping in the scrubby hills. The tufts of olive trees and bramble offered some shelter from the heat, and Kyouki explained they would be more able to find water. “We’ll head out into the dunes in perhaps a few days,” Kyouki said. “Maybe. I hope not, though.”
Continued on January 26...