The way I saw it--and probably would 'til the day I died--was that both times the rug was pulled out from underneath my boots, it was somehow because of that whelp. Not even the whoreson who usually gave me all my trouble. It was the brother of the whoreson who usually gave me all my trouble.
I'd never asked to be anybody's pen pal, since I'd never been much for writing letters in the first place and all the people I'd ever cared to know lived in the same city as I did. The end of the war had fractured some things though, sent little pieces skittering all over, and one of those pieces just happened to have a brother with a real sick sense of humor, at least by my understanding.
Dear Adamo, the letter began--no Chief Sergeant or nothing, which was technically correct, but seemed oddly personal to me.
It is my sincerest wish that this letter finds you well, that its contents are not despoiled before you've had a chance to read them, and most of all that this information doesn't bring you trouble.
I will jump straight to the sticking point and hope that you can forgive me: While in the desert, Rook and I very nearly saw the resurrection of a dragon. Havemercy, specifically. A pair of magicians from Xi'an had pieced her together from old, found parts and somehow managed to get a hold on her soul as well. Please don't mistake me for a philosopher; the soul is a device both magical and mechanical, with the essence of a powerful magician inside to give the creation life. These men had planned on using a woman to house the dragon's soul--a decidedly unmechanical vessel, but one that perhaps seemed easier to control. I tell you all this because Rook and I were not alone when we made this discovery. There was an agent of the Esar present, and what she learned she has no doubt already passed on to her master.
I know that the Esar is a secretive man, one who guards his possessions jealously. In light of that, I considered the possibility that he might never share this story with you and thus felt dutybound to impart it myself. The dragons belonged to more than just one man, however powerful that man might be.
I have no counsel for what you might do with this information, my own strengths lying largely in the theoretical and analytical fields. I merely felt that it was the right thing to pass it along and hope that you do not find yourself too at odds with my assumption.
That was it--the vital parts anyway. I'd squeezed out a lot of the hand-wringing that came afterward and there were three more long paragraphs all about how Rook had taken to the desert like a camel and nearly became prince of the nomads, but that wasn't the shit that was going to get me arrested.
He'd wrapped up the whole thing with Best wishes. After crafting a letter that read like Thom was putting every ounce of that enormous brain into getting me arrested, he ended it with "best wishes."
I'd met some cracked little teacups in my time, but he had to be the absolute worst.
"So the thrust of the matter," I concluded, myself, "is he says you need a living, breathing human being to bind their soul to, and he thinks the ethical implications of something like that would be devastating. Not just for Volstov, but for everywhere else." I reached for the letter to get the proper phrase, the one he'd used that'd made me laugh out my breakfast, although it wasn't for pure humor. "Oh, yeah. 'Just devastating.' He feels compelled, because of our time together, y'see, and because of his brother being 'one of us,' to make sure I'm aware of a situation that, as far as I'm concerned, could probably take my head off my body a damned sight easier than flying."
And that, as anybody knew, was dangerous enough. Commanding the members of the Dragon Corps from Proudmouth's back wasn't exactly the job a sane soldier volunteered for, was it? Even if the truth was I'd never really volunteered for it in the first place--I was just a whole lot better than most people at holding back all the shit I wanted to say when somebody more important was doling out the steaming heaps.
Bitter, my good friend Royston might've called it, but it wasn't really that. It was just practical thinking. My theory was, the less you got involved, the less chance there was of someone important taking exception to your head and the way it sat on your shoulders.
Which was why I didn't appreciate getting this crazy letter from a man I already knew thought more of the ethical implications of something than he did of the personal ones. In other words, me holding this letter, getting it over breakfast and breaking the seal and reading it with my buttered rolls, would've had more implications in th'Esar's eyes than just ethical ones.
Sometimes, a man just didn't want to know.
And that was kind of the tactic I was taking right now. Because in that letter, the words that loudmouthed, proudarsed, crazyeyed ex-airman Rook's damn strange little brother had used--such as "resurrection" and "soul" and "breathing new life"--sounded a lot to me like playing at things I wasn't meant to play at. More often than not, I gave my hand away at cards.
"So, I burn it," I said, with only a hint of uncertainty. I didn't want to be the man who went to his friends asking for advice with his mind already made up. No man was ever more of a burr in the arse than that one, and I wasn't going to be him. Not even in my old age.
Across from me, Royston took a neat little sip of his coffee. Then he reached up to smooth the two, maybe three, gray hairs growing at his left temple--the ones no one would notice if he wasn't so damn self-conscious about them. After all, he was considerably less advanced into his forties than myself. In fact, I thought it was downright rude of him to remind me.
"Well, it is a conundrum," he said finally.
He was doing it to needle me, I told myself, but years of getting used to the behavior never quite meant you became master at dealing with it. I snorted, just giving him the rise he wanted, not to mention buying him extra time to think up a more clever response, then handed it over.
"Well," I said, filling up the air. I hated to watch people read things, and Roy knew it.
"Reading," Roy replied quietly, with that distant air he only got when he was putting his mind to something complicated, or talking about his boy.
Now that was a mess of worms, I told myself--a can of them that'd already been opened--and to avoid hurting certain feelings I had to throw myself into the task of teasing Roy every chance I got, just so he'd know how I felt about the matter. But it'd probably take a few years before I'd be comfortable sitting in the same room with the two of them. Pointing out that a man was still a baby was no fun when that man was in the room, if only because teasing babies just wasn't right no matter who you were doing it for.
Those thoughts seemed to occupy enough time that Roy finally cleared his throat, tossing the letter down between our coffee cups. I eyed it unhappily, this simpleenoughlooking thing that I knew wasn't going to prove simple for me--at least not now that I knew about it.
I wasn't the sort of man who could just sit on information. I'd been bred to act, and all this sitting around and hemming and hawing was starting to chafe at my very last nerve. Wouldn't've expected it to be the quiet that got me in the end either, but the world was a strange place.
"I'll look into it," Roy said.
"Somehow, I knew that'd be your answer." I sighed. "But with a nose that large, I suppose you can't help poking it into things."
"Darkmooded as you are, it isn't anything yet," Roy continued, too distracted by his thoughts to let the teasing get to him. This wasn't a normal coffee we were having, and for whatever reasons that made me even more clenchjawed. There was no way I wasn't going to tear into some poor, hopeful tactician in my afternoon lecture that day, and be hearing about it from the wealthy parents a few days afterward. Couldn't I please be easier on their precious offspring? The lecture room wasn't part of the Airman, as far as they could tell.
And, the worst one: This isn't wartime anymore, you know.
Not that I was against the war being over--not even when it was all I'd ever known, which meant I knew a whole lot more about it than the sapeyed creatures who shuffled into the room and daydreamed about their ponies back in the country while I tried to impress upon them the importance of strategy, or coax some milk of inspiration out of them in return for all the milk they'd sucked from the world, probably right up until the moment they were sent away to 'Versity. Maybe they missed it now. Maybe if I bottled some and gave them all nap times and dollies, they'd be more inclined to think about what the differences would be between an airstrike and a land strike.
And Brothers and Sisters of Regina help them if one of them ever questioned the real importance of discussing airstrikes again, since wasn't that a moot point these days anyway?
Nothing in war or the possibility of war--and definitely not during the preparation for war--was a moot point. I'd drum it into their skulls yet, and if not me, then some future generation of real war drums. Not exactly comforting, but it was a salary and I hadn't been fired yet--no matter how much some parents objected to the shouting.
"Oh, it's something," I muttered. "You mind hanging on to it?"
"You're acting uncharacteristically suspicious," Roy told me, which was true.
"Boy who wrote that's the opposite of any goodluck charm I've ever had," I explained, backward country as it sounded. "Some men carry around a rabbit's foot or a lock of their true love's hair or what have yous. Well, the way I figure it is, I'm not carrying around anything he touched."
"You know what this means?" Roy said.
"It means if I'm caught with this information on me before I-before we--decide what to do with it, the Esar will be very, very displeased." This was just one more reason that sending all these words in a letter was more than just bad luck: it was suicidal stupidity. "He already doesn't like me, though I'm sure his feelings about you are much more complicated. I might even be exiled again. Once is painful enough; twice just seems excessive, don't you agree?"
"Well, look on the bright side, anyway," I replied. "Maybe you'll find yourself another . . ."
"One of these days, Owen," Roy told me, in a tone I really didn't like, "you're going to find yourself falling in love. And I can only hope it will be the most outlandish--the most wildly inappropriate--coupling that Thremedon has ever seen."
"Considering that rumor with Margrave Holt and his greyhounds--" I began.
"I think you need a good walk to clear your head," Royston suggested. "And, for that matter, so do I."
I wasn't inclined to take Roy's advice any more often than I had to. Listening to a man like him when he told you what was best for you would only give him the hot air he required to fill his own head. And as much as I teased him about his nose--great honking detail that it was--the size of his head as it was remained quite tolerable. For the time being, in any case.
But he was right about the walk, as he was right about so many other things that he had no business knowing, let alone sharing.
That was the problem with old friends--and magicians, to boot. Putting both attributes in the same man was like committing yourself to a life sentence, though I'd never actually give him the satisfaction of acknowledging that.
The point was, I did need a good walk to clear my head. And I intended to take it, but I needed some time on my own--if Roy would allow it. Which he usually didn't.
"Along the 'Versity Stretch perhaps?" Royston suggested, already out of his chair and straightening his waistcoat--some gold and black brocade fashion that looked like it cost about as much as the entire coffee shop. I'd seen everyone wearing the sort recently, leave it to Royston to lead the trend. "You might become inspired for your next lecture."
"Head's not gonna get much clearer if you come along," I pointed out, dropping a few coins on the table for politeness's sake. "When you talk, I can't hear myself think."
"Who said I expected you to be able to?" Royston asked.
"Oh, I don't know," I said, putting on my coat. "Little someone by the name of Mistress Common Courtesy?"
"I can assure you that were I ever to take a mistress, it would not be her," Royston said, tying his scarf in a fussy kind of knot before heading for the door.
Wind hit us both square in the face, cold as frozen steel and just about as sharp when we stepped out into the street. Just like always, my muscles tensed all over--though not from the cold, because who would I be if I couldn't handle a little of that? No, it was more like the memory of what wind on my face had meant once and how hard it was to teach your brain something once the rest of you'd gone and figured it out already. All I had was my two boots firmly on the ground, and they weren't going anywhere but down the road. Maybe toward the Rue around where they'd erected those fool statues of me and the boys.
Small miracle no one'd knocked a piece off or written anything vulgar on 'em yet, but that'd come with time. Hell, if some of the boys had been boys still and not just statues, they'd probably have done it themselves--or at least the ones that could write, with messages to each other about the night before, what kinds of women they'd been with and fancied themselves to have pleasured, sharing it so all Thremedon could know just the sort of men they were looking up to.
But I had to steer clear of those would'vebeens, else it'd be another lane I was walking down.
From the Hardcover edition.