by Rob Steiner
Taran placed his last dry towel around the leaking window in his basement office. For the last two days, the rain had fallen non-stop, though thankfully there had been nothing similar to the storm that had devastated Calaman several weeks ago.
Water dripped from the old window in the cracked walls on the other side of the damp basement. He sighed, knowing the humidity in the air was slowly destroying the Mystic books, parchments, and artifacts he had collected over the years. Not even a visit from the Science Minister himself had been able to convince the College administrators to let him move these priceless tomes to the drier basement in Shalliford Hall.
He rolled up his sleeves once more and went back to his desk in the corner. At least the desk was dry…for now. He turned up the flame on his table lamp and returned to the text he had been translating.
There were two knocks on the door to his office, then a pause. Taran smiled, knowing that it was either a student or Arie.
“Come in,” Taran called out.
Arie entered with a grin, his thinning white hair plastered to his head with rain water. He shut the door firmly behind him. The door, like everything else in this “office,” had a tendency to not latch properly and creak open.
“Don’t you have an umbrella?” Taran asked, handing Arie a small dry handkerchief. Arie took it with a nod of thanks and wiped his face.
“I didn’t want to waste time looking for it,” he said. “My boy, I’ve some wonderful news.”
He clasped Taran’s shoulders, and said, “Edoss is sending a delegation to the Beldamark, and they want you to come with them as their Mystic translator.”
Taran stared at Arie for a moment, unable to find the words to respond. He leaned back against his desk. “What made them decide this?” he asked, unable to think of anything more intelligent to say. I’m going to meet the Mystics, was all he could think at the moment.
Arie shrugged. “I don’t know, but the mission is quite secret. I’m the only one at the university who knows. They wanted me to tell you because they did not want to alert the Zampolits if you received another visit from a government official.” Arie grinned. “That and so I would not report you missing to the constables when you leave.”
“When?” Taran asked.
“Tomorrow night. You have to be at the Revela Street Station by midnight, and you are to bring whatever you feel will help you to translate the Mystic language for the delegation. Beyond that, I don’t know anything else.”
Taran shook his head, looking at the bookshelves filled with tattered manuscripts behind his desk. “Tomorrow night. That should be enough time to gather— Wait. What do I tell my wife?”
Adhera was a former Pathist Teacher who hated Taran’s obsession with Mystics. And it was one of the reasons their marriage was on the verge of dying. They slept in separate bedrooms, staying together only to care for their Blood-stricken daughter. Taran doubted she would believe him if he told her he was accompanying a secret government delegation to the Beldamark to meet with Mystics. He had already visited the Beldamark twice with no results. How would she react to a third visit when it took him days to persuade her he had to go on the first two?
Arie shrugged uncomfortably, knowing full well Taran’s situation. “It is likely something she might not believe, even if you could tell her.”
Taran frowned, but Arie continued. “The public’s confidence has been shaken with the rings and with the storm, at least here in Calaman. If word were to leak out that the government is sending a delegation to the Mystics, essentially validating a supernaturalist idea…well, some in the government seem to think the people would run riot in the streets.”
Taran shook his head. “I understand the need for secrecy, Arie, but Adhera is my wife. She’s going to want to know where I’m going and why. I’ve never lied to her. I won’t start now.”
“All right, I will make you a deal. Tell her that I am sending you to the Beldamark for research purposes. I will back you up if she should ask me. However, you cannot tell her that the government is coming with you. Agreed?”
Taran agreed reluctantly, though he still did not like keeping anything from Adhera.
After Arie left, Taran spent the next hour creating a list of the books he wanted to take with him on the journey. When he was finished, he decided he’d pack the books tomorrow. He extinguished the flame in the lamp, locked the door, and climbed the dank, narrow stairwell to the world above.
The hardest rain had let up, but there was still a heavy mist in the air. Taran pulled out his umbrella against the chill fog and tried to sidestep as many puddles as possible. He chose to walk home rather than take the steam trolley. The trolley would get him home in five minutes—he figured he would need longer than that to work out how he would explain his trip to Adhera.
But the walk home did not take as long as he had hoped. He lived on a street less than a half mile from the university, with houses separated by an alley no more than a pace wide. After two years, he still had trouble distinguishing his house from the others. It was a comfortable, two-story townhouse, but not as spacious or well-built as the one they had to sell after the university cut his salary.
He swung open the wrought iron gate in front and climbed the five stairs to the porch. Lamps were burning in the living room. Taran could see that someone sitting in the chair next to the window, and it was not Adhera. He did not like the feeling he got seeing that familiar form. Taran closed his umbrella, shook the rain off of it, and entered his home.
Adhera sat in the rocking chair near the hearth, a small fire burning in it. On the couch near the window was Owhn Feshaye, the neighborhood Pathist Teacher and the man under whom Adhera had apprenticed during her Teaching years. He was a kindly man with a kindly face, full white hair, and spectacles with thicker lenses than Taran’s. Owhn was the kind of Teacher that inspired all who listened to him to better themselves and care for their loved ones. But tonight, Taran felt nothing but dread and a little anger at seeing Owhn sitting on the couch, for he knew what was coming.
“You’re late,” Adhera said. Her tone was not accusatory, but wearily stating a fact. She looked more tired than usual, and Taran was instantly concerned.
“Something came up. Arie has an assignment for me. Good evening, Teacher.”
Owhn stood, extended his hand with a comforting smile, the kind of smile Taran assumed he gave people just before he gave them the Mercy.
“Hello, Taran. It’s been a long time.”
Ever since the Blood had struck Mara, and his subsequent quest for the Mystics, Taran had not attended the neighborhood’s weekly Pathist service. Not because he did not believe in their precepts, but because they did not tolerate his. And he was tired of the pitying looks he received from his neighbors, or the whispers and snickers behind his back. He decided several years ago that it was best to spare Adhera the embarrassment and simply not go to the services.
Taran shook Owhn’s hand, nodding. Then he looked to Adhera, who stared at the fire with her hands on her lap. Taran ached to touch her, to put an arm around her. When was the last time he had put his arm around her…?
“Forgive me for being blunt, Teacher,” Taran asked, “but why are you here?”
Owhn’s smile gave way to concern. “Adhera asked me to come tonight. She was looking for council on how to talk to you. I think you know what about.”
“I’m not going to letting you stick a syringe full of poison into my daughter,” Taran said.
“Taran,” Owhn said, shaking his head, “you make it sound like murder. It is Mercy that we are giving her; it is freedom from the torture she endures every day. Scientists have spent eighty years searching for a cure for the Blood, with no success. You know as well as I that it is the only way to relieve Mara’s suffering. You know it’s the only way to save her from unspeakable pain during her last days. Won’t you sit so we can talk?”
“No. If this is why you’re here, then I’m going to bid you good night.”
“Leave, Owhn,” Taran said, his voice rising slightly. But only slightly, for he did not want to wake Mara if she was asleep as usual at this hour.
Owhn glanced at Adhera, who gave him a small nod. He reached for his flat-brimmed gray hat on the couch and set it on his head. He put a soft hand on Taran’s shoulder as he walked out the door without saying a word.
When Owhn was gone, Adhera looked up at Taran through tears brimming around her eyes.
“She screamed all day, Taran,” Adhera said. Her voice was like a whisper, but it made him flinch. “And they weren’t the usual screams, the ones that end after a few seconds. These were shrieks that lasted until my baby’s throat was raw and she couldn’t make another sound. These were so loud that one of our neighbors wiretyped a constable. He had to come in and see for himself that I wasn’t torturing our daughter. I had to endure the looks he gave me as to why we she hadn’t received the Mercy yet. Why we’ve let her—”
“Enough,” Taran said.
He sat on the edge of the couch and put his head in his hands. He wanted to scream, to release his own frustration. He new the terrible pain his daughter endured every day. And he knew the emotional agony Adhera endured every day caring for Mara, accommodating Taran’s refusal to give Mara the Mercy. For a Teacher to give the Mercy to a child, the law said both parents must approve. Taran had refused for the last six years, even though Adhera had wanted it ever since Mara was diagnosed.
Taran looked up at Adhera. Tears flowed freely down her face, and Taran wanted nothing more than to hold her.
How she must hate me, he thought.
But he stayed on the couch. “Arie is sending me to the Beldamark tomorrow night. To find the Mystics.”
Adhera closed her eyes, then gave a bitter laugh. “Mystics.”
Taran tried to reach for her hand, but she stood before he could take it.
“It’s different this time,” he said. “The rings have changed everything.”
He stood and reached for her shoulders, gently turning her around to face him. “I know it this time. I know I will find them. And when I do—”
She shrugged out of his grip and backed away from him, her arms wrapped around her shoulders.
“You’ll bring them here? You’ll tell them to magically heal our daughter? Just like you said the last two times you went to the Beldamark?”
“I will. I told you I would.”
“I can’t do this anymore,” she said, shaking her head. “I can’t watch Mara suffer like this. Not any more.” Adhera’s control fell, and she wept.
This time she let him take her into his arms, and she sobbed into his chest. “I hate you,” she said. “I hate you for making me do this…”
Taran closed his eyes. “If I don’t come back with the Mystics this time…then I will give my consent for the Mercy.”
Adhera pulled her head away from Taran’s chest, looked up at him with those brown eyes that he had fallen in love with so long ago, when they had everything.
“You will?” she asked, a tremor of hope in her voice.
Taran nodded, though he did not want to. I’m lying to my wife, he thought. Something I swore I’d never do.
But he also swore he would never kill his daughter. He did not know what he would do if he could not find the Mystics this time, but he knew he would never let Owhn or any other Teacher lay a hand on his little girl. Even if he had to kidnap her and flee to the Wild Kingdoms. He would never give Mara to the Pathists.
Even if he had to leave his wife behind.
“How long will you be gone?” Adhera asked, hope filling her eyes for the first time since Mara had been diagnosed.
“Arie thinks it will be two weeks. We leave tomorrow at midnight.”
“Two weeks,” she said, pulling away from him again, her voice bitter. “Mara has endured for six years. I suppose two more weeks of suffering won’t matter.”
She turned and walked up the stairs. He heard her open Mara’s door, pause for a second, and then quietly shut it. When Adhera shut the door to her own room, Taran was left standing alone in a silent house.