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On the day Rook became my brother again, I turned into a liar.
Balfour was the first to ask, once we started up a correspondence, whether or not I had any memories of my older brother. Our time together had been so distant, and to fondly remember a brother only to be confronted years later with the reality of Rook was bound to be a nasty shock.
The question surprised me, but I’d found myself writing an answer nonetheless.
Of course I remember John, I’d said, clutching at the few specifics that I knew to be true. They were enough to make these memories convincing to others and—after a time—I too became convinced.
After that, it was too late. When others asked me whether or not I remembered my older brother, I always said “Of course,” as though it was a foolish question, and didn’t bear thinking about. I’d always prided myself on my honesty—a rare virtue, since it was always the first thing a Mollyrat cast aside—and that I’d stifled it so quickly was a notion that troubled me.
“So you two are brothers?” the innkeeper asked. He was a short, provincial man, with one of those recognizably provincial accents: blurring his h’s and his e’s together, and rounding off his r’s, as though his tongue couldn’t quite shape them in time to get them out. I wondered if I could ascertain his place of birth and whether or not he had been raised there. To me, it seemed clear that he had been born in Hacian, just on the border between New Volstov land and the Old Ramanthe, but I never offered a theory on birthplaces unless I was a hundred percent sure. You never knew whom you’d offend, and among this man’s properties I noted a certain strength of arm, if not of character, that I myself did not possess.
I would let the matter go, though I would make note of it in my travel log.
We were far enough into the countryside that no one knew Rook by sight. We were anonymous travelers, with the mystery of the open road before us—though when I’d shared this sentiment with Rook he’d threatened to take my logbook and stick it somewhere where I need make no further entries. There was nothing to intimate that my brother was one of the greatest heroes of our time—the famed pilot of the dragon Havemercy, who had saved this country.
Not single-handedly, but for some reason Rook had a way of sticking in people’s minds like an irritating burr.
“Yes,” I told the innkeeper. “We are brothers.”
“Don’t look anything alike,” said the innkeeper’s daughter. She wasn’t looking at me. She was staring straight at the window, out toward whatever place Rook had disappeared to earlier. The excuse was that he intended to stretch his legs, but we’d been walking for half the day, and personally I would have found it more relaxing to take a hot bath, have a hot meal, and compile notes about what we’d seen.
“Ah,” I agreed, not trying to offend her either way. Searching for some other topic, I happened upon the only matter on which I was an expert. “I notice that you have an accent of peculiarly—”
“I’d best be seeing to the horses,” she said, hurriedly fixing a strand of her hair before disappearing out the door.
“Now, you listen here,” the innkeeper said, reaching across the desk and grabbing me by the collar. “I don’t want any funny business in my establishment.”
“She’s just gone to see—”
“The horses?” the innkeeper said. “Horses my left nut. She doesn’t need to fix herself up for any horses. You find that brother of yours and you make sure nothing happens.”
“I will do my utmost,” I promised. It was the liar in me reassert- ing himself—though it wasn’t a true lie, since I did intend to try my hardest.
I just wasn’t particularly optimistic about our chances—mine or the innkeeper’s.
But what was most shocking to me was that anyone seemed to think that I’d have any influence on the situation. Despite what had changed since the time of our meeting in Thremedon—a time I preferred to examine in private, like poking at a bad tooth—it was fair to say that I still had very little influence upon what my brother chose to say and do.
To his credit, thus far Rook had managed to avoid any behavior that would have gotten us thrown out of a night’s accommodation, but this was hardly the first time I’d been threatened in this manner. And it seemed that all the innkeepers we’d encountered were under the misapprehension that I had some control over my brother.
This was far from the truth, but I found myself marching off to avert disaster as best I could—a lone sandbag against the coming flood.
The horses were liable to grow spoiled, with three people heading out to see to their needs. Except that it was only Rook who’d set out to look—myself and the innkeeper’s daughter were there for another beast entirely, and one that didn’t go about on all fours.
I had barely reached the stables before I heard his voice. Whether he’d lost the best of his hearing during his time with the Dragon Corps, or whether he just didn’t care who heard him, I had never been able to ascertain, but Rook was loud and it carried. He had no reason to quiet himself since, for Rook, reason was akin to desire. If he didn’t desire something, he found it completely unreasonable.
“We can do this easy or you can be difficult about it, but it’s gonna happen, so you might as well be a good girl and keep your mouth shut, all right?”
A sinking feeling settled into my stomach. Visions of being thrown bodily from the establishment, of sleeping on the hard ground in the cold with no respite for either my tired muscles or my grumbling stomach, flitted through my mind. I hoped the innkeeper was still inside, or at least tending to matters that would keep him there for a while, for I was in no mood to consider giving up the bath I’d been fantasizing about all day. I picked up the pace.
Fortunately, it was a short enough distance across the courtyard that I didn’t have time to call up anything too lurid in my mind. Perhaps it was because the circumstances under which I’d been reunited with my brother had been so particular, but I found myself consistently expecting the worst.
As Rook had kindly suggested, offering his opinion on my “nerves,” I was a grim little fucker when I set my mind to it.
When I reached the stables, he was bent double, digging a stone out of one of the horses’ hooves with his pocketknife. The innkeeper’s daughter was standing as close as she could without chancing a stray kick. She held her hands clasped nervously in front of her. It was as innocent a scene as I could have hoped, and I couldn’t help feeling some perverse disappointment, as though I’d somehow been tricked.
“Picked up a stone, did he?” the innkeeper’s daughter asked.
“She,” Rook grunted, his attention on the horse, who didn’t seem bothered in the slightest, though I knew that if I’d attempted the same trick, I’d have received a good kick to the chest for my efforts. Rook’s hands had that effect on animals—and women too, I sometimes thought in my less charitable moments, but I prized myself on being too much of a gentleman to voice the comparison. “Not her fault. Some people have a hard time followin’ the trail.”
He’d added that last part just for my benefit; he must have, since Rook was of the opinion that it wasn’t any fun listing my shortcomings unless I was in the room to hear them. I thought I’d been rather quiet in entering—not knowing what I was about to walk in on—but apparently my best was still not enough to catch Rook off guard.
I should’ve known, but that didn’t stop me from trying every now and then.
“That wasn’t a trail, it was the side of a mountain,” I sniffed, crossing my arms. “And if I’d known you were going to declare your own shortcuts every ten miles, I’d have prepared myself better.”
The innkeeper’s daughter spooked like a startled horse. She hadn’t heard my approach, nor did she know enough of Rook to know when he was needling someone in the shadows, and she proceeded to glare at me as though I’d interrupted the most intimate of encounters.
Fortunately, I’d survived glares more withering than hers.
She was a strapping sort, and it was obvious that, despite her father’s precautions, she could take care of herself. Only Rook wasn’t the sort of man you could take care of yourself against, no matter who you were. The countryside had never been prepared for him. He was like a walking natural disaster—one for which the Esar provided no compensation or monetary relief. In fact, since the dissolution of the Dragon Corps, I was sure he wanted nothing to do with Rook, and the sentiment was entirely mutual.
“Hungry,” Rook said, more like a grunt than a word.
The innkeeper’s daughter didn’t miss a beat. “I’ll bring in some supper,” she supplied, moving past me as though I weren’t even there. I could hear her feet crunching the hay, and the whinnies of the horses as she hurried off.
“Amazing, isn’t it,” Rook said. He whistled, a low sound to soothe our horse, then dug the pocketknife in deep and, with one fluid motion, eased the stone out.
“That is one word I’d use to describe it,” I admitted. “I wonder if she’ll bring two plates.”
“You didn’t fucking ask,” Rook pointed out. He flipped the stone over in one hand, the nails of which were cracked and muddied, before he held it out to me with a grin, knowing full well that I’d recoil. “Memento? Souvenir? You’re always asking about ’em.”
“Rook,” I began.
“Didn’t think you would. Can’t put this kinda thing down in your book, can you?”
I couldn’t, and it was impossible for him to understand. The beginnings of a headache—not unfamiliar to me now, as all my days ended with them—were creeping toward my temples from the bridge of my nose. I recognized the dull pain instantly, and knew there was only one solution: a hot bath, a full meal, and a good night’s sleep.
“Sure is taking a long time to get the fuck out of this country,” Rook muttered, giving the horse one last soothing rub before clapping her, in an unsettlingly recognizable way, on her rump. Even she allowed these offenses with a pleased whinny, and I gave up hope of ever convincing anyone that Rook’s abuses were not misplaced signs of affection. It was all too easy to fall into that trap with Rook. Whether it was conscious or not, he encouraged that response—the angry sort of person fools believe themselves capable of calming.
I had assumed—quite miserably presumptuous of me—that things would change when we were on the road, but every muscle in Rook’s body was tightly wound with such thrumming, anxious tension it seemed at times he would snap like a metal coil and ricochet with violent speed in an unknown, dangerous direction. He was no longer openly hostile toward me, however, and I was grateful for even this smallest of changes.
Logic said you couldn’t change a person, but I was committed to trying.
“Well, Volstov is very large,” I reasoned, shoving my personal thoughts aside in an attempt to soothe him with facts. I always found facts very soothing. “I could show you the map again, if you’d like.”
“I thought I told you to take that map,” Rook began. Before he could finish, he nearly ran into the innkeeper’s daughter—which on any other occasion wouldn’t have stopped him, but she was carrying a plate of the most incredible countryside food. The very smell of it was so delectable I found myself transported to another time and place, and my stomach rumbled so loudly I couldn’t help but be embarrassed.
“I prepared it for you myself,” the innkeeper’s daughter said, somehow managing to support the heavy-looking tray on one arm while twirling a stray lock of hair with her finger.
“All the loving care of home, huh?” Rook asked. “Well, this idiot’s hungry. I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.”
“What?” I asked, snapping back to reality a little more rudely than I might have wished to under the circumstances. Someone had to defuse this situation, and it certainly wasn’t going to be my brother.
“Pardon?” the innkeeper’s daughter managed, fluttering her eyelashes with what seemed to be a nervous tic.
“Been listening to his stomach growl for near on an hour now,” Rook said, taking the tray from her hands as though he wasn’t drawn in the slightest to its symphony of aromas. “It’s grating on my fucking nerves.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said the innkeeper’s daughter, in a way that really meant she was sorry, but it was only because I was there at all.
Rook shrugged, thrusting the food at me without as much as a cursory glance. “He’s too stupid to say anything. Got dropped on his head as a kid and he’s never really been the same since. Hard traveling the country with a brother that slow, but we’ve all got our burdens.”
Excuse me, I wanted to say, but my mouth was full of bread and turkey gravy, and I couldn’t quite form the words. It was rude not to speak when spoken to, but ruder still to speak while eating.
“Oh, I didn’t realize,” said the innkeeper’s daughter, looking at me with a sudden sympathy. “Have as much food as you like. It tastes delicious,” she said, the words drawn out and slow as though she was teaching an infant to speak.
Rook chuckled as though he’d found a silver lining in the cloud after all, then clapped me on the shoulder. “That’s all right. He’s just like a big animal, really. Real sweet-tempered until he gets into one of his fits.”
Once again, I tried opening my mouth to defend myself, but all I could manage was a kind of grunt in protest.
“I’ll just show you to your room, then, shall I?” Hands free once again, the innkeeper’s daughter brushed her skirts out and eyed Rook in a way that suggested hope sprang eternal in the hearts of some women.
“Sure,” Rook said, starting off like he knew the way better than she did. “Come on, Thom. You can finish inhaling that bird when we get there.”
I followed in his wake, careful not to choke myself with the dual purpose of eating and walking.
It was strange to be addressed—in that voice—by a proper name after Rook had put so much time and energy into thinking up the most caustic, personal insults. Stranger still were the times when we forgot ourselves and slipped into John and Hilary—though this happened rarely, after a mutual decision on both our parts.
“It’s just too fucking weird,” Rook had said, which meant that it was too fucking weird when other people called us by names we had long since put aside.
I’d agreed. It was one of the few instances I could recall that we’d been on the same page regarding even the simplest of issues.
“We’re crowded tonight,” the innkeeper’s daughter explained, skirts swishing as she followed Rook up the stairs.
I hadn’t seen many other guests about, but then we’d arrived at the inn rather earlier than I’d expected, on account of Rook’s little shortcut. Inn traffic, as I’d made note of in my travel log, seemed to pick up most at night after the sun had set and travelers realized they hadn’t planned ahead to where they’d be staying. One had to strike first in order to secure the best accommodations, and if one was lax in his preparations, one found himself sleeping under the stars.
It was an unsettling way to go about things, but it seemed to have worked out well so far.
Rook, of course, thrived on it, as he thrived on all things where there was a chance of being eaten or drowned or falling off a cliffside.
The innkeeper’s daughter unlocked the door to our room and stood back to let us survey the surroundings. I tucked the tray of food a little closer against my chest, following Rook inside. It was a fairly standard room, bare but well tended to. Clean. No bugs that I could see, and therefore superior to most of the lodgings I’d taken in Thremedon.
“Bathroom’s just through there,” she said, still behaving as though Rook were the only guest for the night. “I’ll be showing guests in for the rest of the evening, but if you need anything at all, my room’s second from the left on the first floor, and local people know not to bother me much past eleven.”
I couldn’t help but wish that Rook’s particular charisma worked half as well on the innkeepers as it did on their daughters. We might have had extra gravy, or perhaps a discount.
Rook surveyed the premises with the same bored, slightly derisive air he’d had for almost everything we’d seen up until this point. The innkeeper’s daughter twisted that stray lock of hair in her fingers again, anxious to know whether he’d heard her and not entirely willing to ask.
“I’m gonna take a bath,” he said, nodding when he’d decided that the room was suitable. “Bring me up some dinner when you get a minute, will you? He doesn’t really know when to stop, and I don’t think there’ll be much left when he’s through.”
“You poor thing,” the innkeeper’s daughter murmured, staring at Rook with such rapture that you’d have thought he’d up and announced he was joining the Brothers of Regina.
I’d been mentally compiling my update to our log, but this was enough to make me pause.
“I beg your pardon,” I began.
“That’s all,” Rook said to the innkeeper’s daughter, still hovering in the doorway.
“I’ll have it right up,” she promised, smiling as Rook disappeared into the bathroom.
We were left together, staring at one another, completely at odds. “Thank you,” I began, but my pleasantries were too late; she swung the door closed behind her without a second look at me.
“Am I invisible?” I demanded, going over to the bathroom door once she’d gone and there was no chance of her overhearing me. It was ironic, really, as there had been numerous times in my life when I’d wished for nothing but the power to be invisible. Now that I had it, such treatment was beginning to wear on me.
“Not the way you’ve been eating,” Rook snorted. “Get out, Cindy. You ate my dinner. I’m taking the first bath.”
“Please,” I said. “That language.”
“Look,” Rook said, not for the first and no doubt not for the last time. “I’m tired and I’ve been traveling just as much as you. You wanted to come along, so you play by my rules. Eat your fucking turkey and leave me be.”
Once again, a door was shut unceremoniously in my face, and I was left alone. The room smelled of gravy and horses and the mud of travel but also of clean sheets. There was only one chair, and one of the legs was shorter than the others, so that when I sat the thing nearly went out beneath me.
To soothe my spirits, I took out my travel log and began to write of that day’s adventures. No matter how minor, I did wish to remember them.