Letter From The Editor - Issue 55 - February 2017

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The Hanged Poet
    by Jeffrey Lyman

The Hanged Poet
Artwork by Nicole Cardiff

General Veritas sat on his horse, alone on the vast, snow-covered plains of north Madalan. Before him, in a hollow between low hills, stood a half-dozen winter-bare cottonwood trees and a tumbled pile of stones.

Three wild dogs jumped and nipped at something hanging from a tree, and he recognized it as a body from the heavy way it swung and spun. He had seen many men hanged in his long career.

The copse of trees lay days out from the last village, so it was an odd place to come upon a hanging. He supposed he should be cautious, but instead he watched absently, his mind far away in the capital city of Inrenae.

It had been a blow to leave, but the young Lord Emperor, in his infinite kindness, had retired General Veritas after four decades of service. The Lord Emperor had awarded him an estate in the land of Veritas' youth - a place he barely remembered. He had been dismissed with a nod of thanks.

He glanced at the sun at the horizon. The winds of the plains whined and mumbled, gnawing at his cheeks, making him pull his cloak tighter around his throat. He needed fire.

After all these years, he still had not grown accustomed to winter. He had been born in a land of dark skin, brightly-colored birds, and most of all, a hot sun all year round. He wondered if he would miss winter while growing old and fat on his estate. Probably not. There were too many other things to miss.

"Hey!" he shouted at the dogs, his voice a jagged break through the wind's constant moan. The dogs jerked their heads up, growling, protective of their corpse. They were thin, but not starving. Veritas shouted again and they edged back, keeping their eyes on him. He was disappointed they didn't attack. He wanted to fight them bare handed, as he had once done in his youth.

They turned and trotted to the crest of a nearby hill where they stood in profile against the setting sun, watching. Their shadows stretched long toward him. They might still attack during the night.

He swung to the ground and led his horse into the hollow, then looped the reins around a branch. Up close, the pile of stones became a ruined hut, bound in dead vines. A long-abandoned hermit's home? A forgotten hunter's shelter?

The crusted snow crunched below his boots as he strode past the hut to the frozen corpse.

She was a young woman, small, pale-skinned as all northlanders were, and long dead. A weathered shift of gray wool hung down from her shoulders. Her hands had been bound behind her back, and her bare feet dangled at the height of his chest. The toes the dogs had not worried over were black with frost.

Veritas looked up to her swollen face and the dry rope, taut under her jaw. He had ordered many men hanged during the wars of the empire's expansion, and he had seen many women raped and slain on the ground. He had only seen two women hanged, and they were both high born. Hanging a peasant girl was senseless.

She swung slowly after the dogs' last attentions, and her rope creaked. He would cut her down to keep the noise from bothering him while he slept.

"May I share your tree tonight?" he said, then joked, "Maybe later I'll hang myself beside you."

Her eyes snapped open, eyes washed-out blue like the winter sky. Veritas leapt back, stumbling on a branch beneath the snow.

"I wouldn't mind some company," she said in a dry voice, like leaves skirling across cobblestones. "But I don't think you want to rest up here. It's going to get cold when the sun sets."

Veritas drew his sword swiftly and rose slowly, facing her. There was no shame in jumping back from an unknown threat, but he was furious at himself for having fallen. His feet were not as nimble as they once were.

"You're dead," Veritas said, steadying his sword.

"And you are not."

"What I meant is how are you speaking? You are dead, aren't you?"

"Of course. What is your name?"

He hesitated. He had seen the dead walk a few times in his life, and they always moved with some terrible purpose. They were dangerous to body and soul. Giving life to the lifeless was a divine form of magic, terrible and rare.

But he shrugged; he was retired now and it didn't matter anymore. He sheathed his sword. "I am the great General Veritas."

"Should I know you?"

"Of course you should know me, girl," he snapped. Was it possible that some small corner of the world had not heard of him? "I have been the right hand of three Lord Emperors. I am the High Commander of the Imperial Legions. The Conqueror of Bralick and Rhadikan. I am General Veritas."

"It's a nice name, but it's not yours. You have dark skin, and that is a northern name."

He glared. No one spoke to him with such familiarity. Even the Lord Emperor had been formal when sending him south. "I serve the empire, so I am known by my northern name. When I lived in the south, my name was Prince Keal."

"A mighty general and a prince. I am honored. Why do you stand beneath my tree all alone?"

"I do not require traveling companions. I have retired from the Lord Emperor's service, and I'm going home to my estates. It will feel good to shake winter from my old bones."

"Winter's grip fails with spring. It always does. Which name should I call you now that your service is ended?"

"My service to the empire is never done."

"Then welcome to my home, General Veritas."

He squinted at her. "What were you called?"

"I am Theseda Ys."

"Greetings, Theseda Ys," he said. "What did you do to be hanged?"

"I wrote a poem for the Emperor."

He was startled. He didn't expect a peasant girl to be able to write poetry, let alone have contact with such an illustrious person. "Call him the Lord Emperor, and writing him a poem was unwise. Poems can be powerful."

"Poems change things."

Veritas crossed his arms over his chest, interested. He loved poems and their magical potential, and someone had gone to a lot of trouble to hang her here. Her poem might be useful. It might take him back to the capital. He had a collection of powerful poems that had changed him at different times in his life. "Did you tell the truth in your poem, or lie?"

"I meant to speak a poem about nothing; the truth arrived unrequested and unwanted."

"It does that sometimes to all of us. I will take you down." He reached for his belt-knife.

"Please don't. The wild dogs would tear at me. You could bury me, but I think that would be intolerable. It's not so bad up here. It's pretty in the summer, and the dogs keep me company." They both looked at the waiting dogs on the hill. A gust of wind shook the trees and Theseda Ys' body jerked.

"Tell me your poem," he said.

"You are presumptuous. I must know you first."

He shook his head, unused to being denied. "I told you who I am."

"Do you think titles tell a story? General, prince, leader, conqueror. My poem might break you."

"Break me?" He genuinely laughed. "Girl, it has taken a lifetime to earn these titles. I do not break."

"My poem has shaken greater men than you, General Veritas. Changed them. If I am to speak it, you must answer my questions first."

He frowned, irritated. "I will consider."

But his heart beat fast as he went to unsaddle his horse and fetch his pack. This was a poem of power; rare power if it had upset a Lord Emperor. Veritas poured oats to supplement the grass his horse pawed at beneath the snow. Let Theseda Ys wait on his decision.

As he gathered deadwood for the fire, his old knuckles ached in the deepening cold. The sun was gone, leaving a sky of washed-out blue like the eyes of the hanged woman. She kept her face to him as he piled wood, and he could hear the dried sinews in her neck ticking and popping as she turned.

He didn't know if the magic in her poem would do anything for him. That was the risk. Poems could be fickle, even poems of power, and he would be taking a tremendous risk dealing with the dead. He could easily end up damned, like her. But what did he really have to lose, except old age and ebbing strength?

"Why can you still speak to the living?" he asked. He kicked away snow to expose hard ground.

"My poem sustains me. So long as it is remembered, I live."

"It also condemned you," he countered. "You must have upset the Lord Emperor very much if he sent you so far to die." He masked his keen interest by tearing up handfuls of dead grass for kindling and throwing them into the bare space.

"I was not sent by the Emperor. I was brought by High Priest Edo."

Veritas straightened, the grass falling from his hand. "Edo? A black name in the history of the empire. Have you hanged here so long?" A poem powerful enough to keep her awake for almost a century, and powerful enough to frighten Edo. Edo had been fearless in his rebellion against the first Lord Emperor, Teron.

"Edo was not the heretic they make him out to be," she said, "and I have lost count of the years. You are the first to share my tree in a long while. I did not know death would be this cold."

"I have heard it is so, but I am an old soldier. Still, it must be gratifying that your poem is remembered. Perhaps I've heard it?"

"No. High Priest Edo forbade writing it down. Those who know it teach it in secret to those worthy to hear."

Teaching poems in secret was seditious. The young Lord Emperor would welcome news of a simmering rebellion, especially one centered on a poem that had frightened Edo. Veritas could be the messenger and use that to return to the capital. "What if no one remembers it?"

"Then it must not be needed. I shall fall and the wild dogs will have me at last."

"Needed for what?"

"That can only be answered by the poem itself, and the ears that hear."

Veritas crouched and struck steel against flint, showering the grass with sparks. He had begun to feel the atmosphere of the place and wanted the fire for light as well as warmth. Theseda Ys rocked in a breeze and her noose crrrkk'd as it rubbed across the bark of her tree.

"I collect poetry," he said, his breath billowing in the evening air. "I have gathered a few poems over the years, the poems that have changed me. Ask your questions and I will hear your poem."

"Such faith. What if my poem doesn't affect you?"

"As you said, that can only be answered by the poem itself. And my ears."

"Are you worthy?"

"Poems have been written about me, girl, seeking to draw strength from my glory. I am second only to the Lord Emperor. I am worthy to hear any poem."

The fire grew, casting light on her seared features. He saw something alert and swift in her eyes and reminded himself to remain wary.

He drew an inkpot from his pack and placed it next to the fire to thaw.

"You are presumptuous," Theseda Ys said. "You wish to write it down in defiance of High Priest Edo's edict? Tell me, great General, what will you do in the south now that the empire no longer needs you?"

He scowled, examining his frozen bottle of ink. "The Lord Emperor granted me an estate. I will rest."

"You don't sound happy."

"The Lord Emperor honors me."

"Does a life of leisure frighten you, Prince Keal?"

"I am General Veritas!"

"That is a northern name. Can you do anything other than fight?"

Veritas barked a bitter laugh. "There has been no fighting for almost eight years. The empire is quiet."

She twitched and he thought she looked surprised. "The wars have ceased?" she asked quietly. "Then the empire must have nothing left to devour." Louder, "I will tell you my poem after you read me the oldest poem in your collection. The poem that changed you first."

He tried not to shiver in a sudden chill. "You said I only had to answer your questions."

"I am asking you for your poem."

"I will not read it to you."

"Come, General, you are a great landowner, a prince of the south. You must learn the value of barter. There must be an equal trade."

She stretched her cracked lips into a smile. She mocked his honorable exile. He grew angry.

"All of the poems in my collection are equally important. All changed me," he said.

"Tell me the first one."

"I will read you any other."

She didn't answer, so he crouched down and erected a spit over his crackling and flaring fire.

"Give me your poem or I will lay you on the ground for the dogs!" he ordered in his most commanding voice. He looked over his shoulder at her. She did not tremble with fear as most people did.

"You think that would be easy to do?" she said, "Unbind me and see."

The silence stretched; neither one broke eye contact. His hand wanted to return to his belt-knife.

"How did a man from the southlands end up as a general?" she said at last, though she did not look away. "You are a long way from home, and emperors do not normally trust foreign men in such high positions."

"Lord Emperor."

"Why do you insist on that?"

"The Emperor is God-on-earth. Address him as such."

"Ah. God-on-earth. High Priest Edo fought against that belief. I am from a time before, when we worshipped Aztibel. Aztibel was usually more forgiving."

Veritas snorted. Aztibel was weak. "A few people still worship her, but first they must acknowledge the Lord Emperor."

"You would be surprised how many still believe."

"You would be surprised at how quickly they bow to the Lord Emperor when arrested."

"How did you become a general?" she asked in a flat tone. He thought perhaps he had stung her.

"I worked my way up through the ranks of the Southern Legions. We had a lot of fighting to do then. The empire was smaller, with many enemies. I am undefeated in battle, so it is said I am the reason for the empire's current size. The Lord Emperor brought me north in due time."

"That is the story of General Veritas. I'm more interested in Prince Keal. Why did you leave your people?"

Veritas pushed the spit through a strip of salted beef and an onion. He hung them over the fire. "There isn't much to tell of my princely youth. I was engaged from before I was born to Princess Duranni. That was during a time of peace between the tribes. Growing up, we would sit around the fires and listen to old men tell tales of raids and plunder, but we were bored and restless. The elders hoped marriages between princes and princesses from rival tribes would extend the peace."

"It did not?"

"Peace never lasts. The Malawha Tribe attacked while I was meditating in seclusion. I slew many with a tree branch, and I enjoyed the battle. I joined the Lord Emperor's army."

"That was a great decision to make - to leave your people. Did you see Princess Duranni again?"

"Never."

"This first poem, the poem that changed you, when did you hear it?"

Veritas looked out past the trees. The flickering firelight turned the plains and hills to impenetrable blackness. Light glinted in the wild dogs' eyes. He threw more branches on the fire. "I will not tell it to you."

"I asked you about it. I would know something of the man who desires the poem that has let me live longer than my life."

Veritas eased himself to the ground, conscious of old wounds and aches. "I received the poem not long before the attack of the Malawha boys. It was a sunny day after the wet season, when the beautiful days had begun."

"Who wrote the poem?"

He looked up at her. "Princess Duranni wrote it. But if you want to know more, then you must answer my questions."

She smiled. "Now you understand commerce."

"How did you gain an audience with the Lord Emperor? Poetry is high magic, and there are things you can do with a poem. I am surprised the priests let you speak at all."

"I know that now. Then I was merely a supplicant, one of thousands who came on Forgiveness Day in hopes of having my debts forgiven."

"I have seen Forgiveness Day. It is difficult to contain so many desperate people within the city walls. Congratulations on achieving an audience."

"I was a pretty girl, to the Emperor's taste. I assumed I would have to lay with him to ease my debts. I hoped he would require only a few months and not years."

"Was your debt great?"

"Very great. I was desperate. Unfortunately on that Forgiveness day the Emperor Teron fought with High Priest Edo. It was three weeks before Teron's fortieth birthday, you see, the day he would be sacrificed to Aztibel. It was known that Emperor Teron feared death."

"Lord Emperors fear nothing. They are gods greater than all others."

"He was in a stormy mood when we entered the Great Hall," she continued as if he had not spoken. "Instead of asking why our debts should be forgiven, or asking for our bodies or some other token of sacrifice as in previous years, he demanded we each recite a poem of our own making. You who collect poems, have you ever created one?"

"I do not have that divine gift."

"Nor did we, standing in the echoing Great Hall, looking up at the Emperor. We were terrified. Who can think of poetry under such circumstances? The guards along the walls held their spears high while one by one Emperor Teron summoned us forward.

"The first man cried that he was no poet. He was killed immediately for disobeying. After that everyone tried, hoping the Emperor would be pleased.

"By the time I stepped forward, many lay dead before the dais and a bare few had escaped. The smell of blood was terrible. The emperor commanded me to speak."

Veritas pulled meat from the spit and tugged on it with his remaining good teeth. He closed his eyes as he imagined the blood and the bodies and the poetry.

"A guard approached," she said. "I took a trembling breath and began a poem about a flower. The priests are right to fear poetry. It slipped from my control. I barely knew what I spoke."

"I wish I could feel that just once," Veritas said. "Feel a poem bursting from my mouth. The Lord Emperor was changed?"

"Oh, yes. He forgave my debts and asked me to lay with him. He honored me."

"What words sped from your mouth?" Veritas asked in awe.

"Princess Duranni sent you her poem, a poem that changed you greatly by your own admission. Was it a sad poem, or an angry poem? Did she break your heart?"

"It was a goodbye poem, though it was not her fault. I understood."

"Sometimes princes and princesses must do things that they do not want to do. Did you love her?"

"I did not."

"Have you ever loved anyone?"

He smiled. Love was a hindrance. He wasn't surprised by her question, though. She was a woman, and women always talked of love. "I have not."

"A man goes his whole life, and it is a long one, and does not love. Perhaps that is not so strange, but I am sad for you."

"You were young when you died, still naïve. I am certain you loved."

"I did. I miss him."

"You are lucky. You didn't live long enough for your love to sour. You have a memory of a brief and pure thing."

"It wasn't brief. We were together for years."

He glanced up to see if she joked, but it was hard to tell. He didn't think her face capable of many expressions anymore. She seemed too young to have loved for years.

"Who was he?" he said. "A childhood friend? Some shepherd, wooing you with flowers and promises of marriage?"

"You don't understand love."

"Understanding is not necessary to recognize the damage it can do," he scoffed.

"Understanding is everything, in love and in poetry. If you don't understand them they both can consume you. Theirs is an unstable power."

"Are you saying I don't understand poetry?" He stood again, glaring at her.

"Don't be angry. It has been a long time since I have spoken of poetry. Or love."

"You're the one who doesn't understand! One divine poem crossed your lips. You loved a man once. Now you hang like a memento, forgotten."

"You are more right than you know. And I was taught to understand from a young age."

"Taught?"

"Don't let my tattered dress fool you. I am a princess of Porrin."

"A princess?" He searched her face and dress for a sign he had missed, but sun and frost had done their work. She was a mottled, frozen husk. "I thought you were a village girl. Porrin is a wealthy country."

"Porrin is wealthy because the Emperor forgave their debt on Forgiveness Day."

Veritas was stunned. "You sought the Lord Emperor's forgiveness for the debt of a country? And you sought it with only your body?" He was appalled at her arrogance. If Black Edo had not hanged her out here, Lord Emperor Teron should have.

"It was a desperate gesture from a desperate people. I was the eldest daughter, so that counted for something."

"That must have been some poem." He wanted that poem. Surely it could change him back into what he had been.

"It was just a poem about a flower."

Veritas sat carefully and threw more sticks on the fire. "What did Black Edo fear in your poem?"

"Edo feared many things." She closed her eyes. "The Emperor fought to throw down Aztibel, after all."

Veritas drew out his scroll of poetry and unrolled it to the last poem in his collection. It was the song of a wine steward that had led him to accept an administrative post in the capital, and thus preserved his career for eight years after the wars ended. Only tan vellum, empty of words and power, remained after this poem. He gazed at the vacant space. A future without guideposts.

"There is nothing in this whole world but strength," he said quietly. "I had some, but now it is gone."

"Sometimes all that is left is to breathe," Theseda Ys replied, equally softly.

"I need your poem."

"There is a price to be paid for hearing it."

"Please." He hunched forward over his scroll, chin down, hands pressed onto his knees. It hurt him to say the word.

"I will have your poem first."

He breathed, inhaling the scent of wet earth, melting snow, and smoke from the fire.

"At least tell me how it came to be," she said. "You left your people after Princess Duranni's poem changed you. That is not how a prince should act. I went to the palace intending to sacrifice my honor for Porrin. You enlisted in the army of your homeland's conqueror."

Veritas closed his eyes. He had not revisited the past in four decades. He had avoided it, intending to confront it when he was ready. When he finally journeyed home to where he could sort it out, the gods above placed this woman in his path halfway between the journey's beginning and end. They had their own timing for such things.

"When I first came here you seemed like a village girl," he said at last. "I didn't know you were a princess, and the eldest princess at that. You know of responsibility. I am not the first prince. I am not the second or third. I was thirty-seventh in the line of succession, born of a mother as poor as a village girl. I wore a loincloth, while my princely cousins wore robes and pearls. I was Prince Keal, but it was only a title." He looked up at her, steeling himself for her mockery.

Instead she said, "Was Princess Duranni regal?"

He struggled to remember what Duranni looked like. "She was as low as I. When the elders agreed to wed the princes and princesses to keep peace, I think they included us lesser cousins as a joke."

"And now here you are, second only to the Emperor. Your homecoming will be momentous. Why do you fear it?"

"There is nothing for me there," he said bitterly.

"The Emperor gave you a great estate, and land is power. You will be a prince in truth."

"Land is not strength, and titles tell no story."

"There is always more to a story than a little bit. What made you leave?"

"You shame me with your questions."

"I must understand you before I give you my poem. That has always been my intent."

Veritas sat as the stars wheeled across the sky and the bitter wind sang softly. He felt weary. The rope of Theseda Ys beckoned. But that way would be easy. One thing he could truly claim, he never chose the easy path.

He would give her his poem. She thought she knew his shame, but there was always more shame to reveal.

"I have not read this poem since I wrote it down. Not a single word." He unrolled the scroll, all the way back to the beginning where the vellum tightly curled and the ink was faded. It was scribed in the hand of a much younger man. "Here is Princess Duranni's poem:

I looked into the well at the edge of the village,

the one where Bayati was struck by lightning.

The voice of the sea blew over the well-mouth,

Telling me you are far away.

I asked the well would I see you again,

"Not with your eyes," it said.

I returned to my hut by the Limde River

and wept.

On Hanik's Day I will marry your brother

for you are already dead."

He rolled the scroll until he had buried the poem again.

"What caused her grief?" Theseda Ys said.

"I had been sent away." Veritas rubbed his aching hands together. "Exiled. I drank too much at a celebration and struck a prince of higher rank. The Council sent me to tend goats for the rest of my life. So where I had been nothing before, I was made to be less than nothing. A goatherd with the title of Prince."

"This freed you from responsibility to your tribe?"

Veritas shook his head. "My only responsibility was to the goats. Then that was taken from me too.

"The Malawha boys attacked my cousin and me as we watched the herd. Twenty of them against two of us. The Malawha Tribe had declared war, and took my tribe by surprise. Everyone was dead or enslaved. All those fine princes who looked down on me. Next the Malawha came for the goats. They had swords, but no skill. I killed two young ones with a tree branch. My cousin killed three before someone stabbed him from behind. I did not enlist in the Emperor's army. The Malawha sold me to it.

"What do you think of me now? A goatherd and a slave. Do you understand why I will not take back the name of Prince Keal?"

"Tell me how Princess Duranni's poem changed you." Her voice was calm.

He searched her face for pity, but found none in her penetrating eyes. "The poem was a divine gift," he said. "Her poem released me from my marital obligation. It broke my final tie to the tribe. I had no obligation to avenge my people; I had no obligation to escape enslavement; I had no obligations for the first time in my life. Prince Keal was left behind and I chose the name Veritas. I had no idea what it meant, it was written on a soldier's shield. Everything thereafter I earned."

"The youth you brag of is all a lie."

"Had you asked me about General Veritas, I could have told you a glorious tale. All true."

She laughed and his fury ignited.

"I have told you my poem!" he said. "Tell me yours."

"That was our agreement," she said.

Veritas nodded weakly. Something left him with his outburst; his strength waned further. He opened his scroll to the blank space and prayed her poem would save him. When he dipped his quill in the icy, thawing ink, his fingers trembled.

"I stood amidst the bodies of supplicants," Theseda Ys said, "alone before the Emperor hoping to present a small poem about a flower. Perhaps its power would have been enough to save me, but the words took on a life of their own in my mouth and emerged changed. I was upset. We came hoping for mercy on a day when mercy is given."

She stopped speaking. Veritas looked up from his scroll, quill poised, as her silence stretched.

"Do you love the Emperor?" she asked suddenly.

"He is God-on-earth."

"That is not an answer."

Veritas looked into the glowing embers of the fire. "I do not really care for the young Emperor."

"I will tell you my poem."

Veritas dipped his quill into his inkpot once more.

She said:

"Beside the high road from Porrin

where mountains descend into canyons,

a flower had sprung from the brambles

that writhed and tried to consume it.

A single white flower that promised

of dreams without brambles or nettles.

Its petals thrown up to the sun,

calling and catching the rays.

I sat in my carriage-seat thinking

of flowers that grew here before this,

while the horses drew up to the river

that the dead are unable to cross.

I had heard of those other white flowers

that fought from the ashes and cinders,

they were bent in the grip of the brambles,

and lost to the sight of the sun.

But the sunlight still touched on my flower,

and the ferry was crossing the river.

I pushed through the nettles and brambles,

and carried the flower with me."

Veritas lowered his quill. He tilted the scroll towards the fire to dry, and ruddy light shone through the thin vellum. The wind held its breath.

"Emperor Teron heard you," he said. "He started his fight against the priesthood because of this poem. He forgave Porrin's debts and Edo cursed you to hang."

"That was the first day of a terrible time. The Emperor took my poem as a sign and rose up against the old religion. He chose to live past his fortieth birthday. High Priest Edo shouted that Aztibel would rain down fire if Emperor Teron did not submit to the sacrifice. People fled the city."

"It took the Emperor almost a decade to defeat the old religion," Veritas said. "You carried the flower across the river that no other Emperor had crossed. You made him a god. No wonder High Priest Edo hated you."

"The poem was just a spark, inspiring him to do what he wanted to do anyway. He believed Aztibel's reign was over."

"Did he fear?"

"Of course. He lay terrified in bed the night before his birthday, waiting for fire to rain down. But he refused to give in and there was no divine retribution. The flower had crossed the river. He was the first emperor in seventeen generations to live past forty and it was this that really gave him the courage to defy Edo through the coming years."

"And you loved him."

"I did not. I thought I spoke a love poem to him. He never saw it that way. To him, it was an inspiration. You are the same. Princess Duranni sent you a poem of sadness. It was a love poem to you, grieving your loss. You didn't understand it that way. It was your inspiration to freedom, and you never mourned her. When you introduced her to me earlier, you said you had been engaged before you were born. She was an obligation. That is why you never loved her."

Veritas closed his eyes, thinking back. She had long, black hair. Unless that was someone else. He couldn't remember. "Did the Emperor love you?"

"No. Within a year he was consumed with his fight. His bed grew cold to me. He left me exposed, and Edo captured me."

"Why did he bring you out here to die? Why not make a public spectacle of you to challenge the Emperor?"

"He wanted to at first, but my death wouldn't have mattered in the end. He knew I hadn't spoken my poem from malice. It had been divinely influenced, and he desperately wanted to know why. We spoke for a long time. He asked me what I had seen and felt as the poem passed my lips. I couldn't tell him much, and he despaired.

"I thought his struggle with the Emperor was about power, but it wasn't. Not to him. It was about love. He loved Aztibel and feared the Emperor's turning away."

"You loved Edo," Veritas said with final understanding.

"Yes, I do. I remained with him for years in the temple complex. I had always been a believer, but I grew to love Aztibel as he did. I was horrified by what I had caused."

"You were a spark. A spark never knows if it will light a candle or a forest."

"Nevertheless, Aztibel's priests were being killed, their knowledge and passion lost. The end was coming."

"How did you come to be here, alive and not alive?"

"Edo was desperate. He sent priests away to foreign lands, carrying copies of precious texts. The Emperor caught as many as he could, and began invading other countries to catch more.

"Then came the day when Emperor Teron moved openly on the temple complex. The people still loved Aztibel, and they blocked the streets with their bodies. The temple soldiers went out to meet the imperial soldiers, to make their stand. Edo asked me to speak my poem once more. Then he chose to trust in his faith.

"'Maybe,' he said, 'your poem is not about the Emperor at all. Maybe the Emperor's defiance was inevitable. If so, your poem is about Aztibel.'

"We escaped the city, along with many others, through secret tunnels. Edo brought me here and built that stone hut to stay with me. I miss him so much. We were together every day for ten years, until the morning he did not wake."

Veritas felt cold flush across his body, deeper than the night. Theseda Ys had carried something across the river that the dead cannot cross. "Are you Aztibel?" he whispered.

"I am waiting."

"For what?"

"The priests-in-exile memorize my poem and sustain me, but they never write it down. They are waiting for a sign. Until they come for me, I am safe here. Who bothers a corpse, except a man who does not fear the dead?"

"You want me to take your poem to them."

"I do."

"That would be a terrible thing. I would be a spark."

"I give you a purpose again."

He had not been seeking a new purpose. He had wanted things back the way they were. "I spent forty years building the empire, crafting a time when I would no longer be needed. Should I spend my twilight years unbuilding it? It is not a shoe to be tied and untied."

"You were not the craftsman, you were his tool. But you could be the craftsman."

"This is not the change I wanted."

"Read back through your poems. How many of those changes did you welcome? I offer you strength."

Veritas gazed toward the horizon. In a few hours the sun would rise.

He carefully returned the scroll to his pack and capped the inkbottle. He lifted the pack onto his horse. "I will go to my estate in the south. Such decisions are not made in an instant." He felt excited. His thoughts had been so focused on the capital that he found it hard to direct them elsewhere. But elsewhere was the only place he could go from here. "I will keep your poem safe. I will add no others to my scroll. Princess Duranni's is the first, and yours shall be the last."

"Did it change you then? Maybe it wasn't meant for you. Maybe it's all a lie."

He smiled. "There is much truth in it. I have rivers to cross, too." He looked for some sign of the wild dogs.

"Will we will meet again, General Veritas?"

"Don't call me that. Prince Keal has been dead for a long time, but General Veritas is dead too, isn't he?"

"Sometimes the dead speak, and remind us of things past."

"Then they and I will speak again, on another dark night. I will return to you in the spring, when it is warmer."

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