The guard sighed, then leaned back to stretch. He said, “You know what? You’re right about not being able to take care of them, but it’s not for the reason you think. You have so much blood on your hands you’re practically drenched in it. I can tell. There’s something black and violent in you, Master Androkles. Something dark that you bring out when you need to hurt people. I can see it plain as day, and so can a lot of other folks. You think you’re all about honor and duty, but it’s really just anger and pride that drive you. So when you say you can’t take care of them, you’re right. You’re not worthy of good boys like those. It’d be best for them and for you if you were to leave them here and go on your big impressive journey, and let us make sure they grow up knowing right from wrong.”
“You mistake me.”
“Do I? Is that why you got so soggy drunk that you dropped like the dead, right in the middle of town, the first chance you got? Because of how honorable you are?”
“I didn’t know the beer was that strong! It was wrong of you not to warn me. Don’t blame me for that,” Androkles was starting to feel defensive, and that made him angry.
“You embarrassed yourself with the beer because you weren’t paying attention. You are incapable of listening to what’s right or wrong, southerner. All your laws and honor made you forget how. You don’t even know what you truly want,” said Kemen.
That was enough. Androkles squared his shoulders, crossed his arms, and called up the strongest killing intent he could, letting it radiate out from his core as his heart fixated on violence. He fed it all his indignity, his injustice, his regret; it grew strong, almost strong enough to make waves in the air. Every bird stopped chirping; the insects grew still. It was the glory of a man who had survived a hundred battles, who had killed every enemy who raised a weapon against him. The glory of a man who stood between his homeland and the desolation of war. It was uncompromising strength, a promise of overwhelming destruction given substance.
Kemen gave him a look of shocked surprise, then shied away from the power in his eyes. The man grew pale and begun to sweat, but to his credit, he did not cower or flee as many had done before. Instead, he strenuously held himself perfectly rigid to try and keep his composure. Still, when Androkles began to speak, Kemen trembled with every word. “Some things, barbarian, are more important than what petty, fickle emotion wants. Pride. Honor. Glory. The City. To leave a legacy to one’s heirs. To honor one’s ancestors. I am a man of strength and dignity and reputation. Do not judge me as you would a farmhand, or one of your pathetic villagers.”
Androkles let his killing intent fade quickly after that. Once it had gone, dozens of birds fled, no longer held down by terror. Calm returned to the area, but it was a different calm than it had been before. He asked, “Now. Do you have a place for my boys?”
“We do,” said Kemen, after a pause, his voice almost a whisper. Sweat dripped down his face, and he looked directly at the ground beneath Androkles’s feet.
“Good. I’ll leave you the cart. It and everything on it is my gift to them. The goods are to be handled as they wish, or for their direct benefit by whomever adopts them. I’ll leave tomorrow morning,” Androkles unfolded his arms and turned to walk back in through the gate.
“That will be fine,” said Kemen quietly.
The boys would be taken care of, then. It seemed like Androkles should feel relieved, but he didn’t. A bit angry, but that was fading; perhaps sadness was all that was left in him at the moment. That, and determination.
He heard Kemen vomiting behind him as he made his way back through the creaking, leaning wooden gate, which made him feel a bit better. When he got back to the old stone ring at village center, he found the knee-highs crying, and his boys trying to comfort them along with the elders, all looking worried. They had, no doubt, tasted his killing intent. Perhaps he shouldn’t have brought out quite so much of it.
When they saw him, his kits came running, eyes wide in fear. Flower shouted, his voice shaky with alarm, “Master Androkles! Is something wrong? There was a bad feeling.”
“Yes, everything is fine. Are you alright?”
“I’m really scared,” said Pepper, clutching Androkles tightly, which surprised him; Pepper wasn’t the one of the two who talked about feelings. “So is everyone.”
“It feels like something bad happened. Or something bad is going to happen,” said Flower, nearly trembling. The boy held his arms across his chest almost like he was trying to hug himself.
Androkles sighed. He didn’t regret the way the conversation with Kemen had ended, exactly; the man needed to be put in his place. Still, he saw now that he’d overdone it, especially with so many children around.
“Boys, everything is fine. I promise. Nothing bad happened, and it won’t happen. There was a bad feeling, but it’s gone now, so calm down,” said Androkles gently, petting the boys on their heads. “Now, honestly, I haven’t washed for days. Let’s head over to the baths and soak for a bit.”
They each took one of Androkles’s hands, nodding, then huddled rather close to him as they left the village to find the baths that Agurne had told them about. Flower held Androkles’s hand with both of his own in a somewhat awkward way that made walking feel clumsy. Androkles considered whether to tell them that the feeling had come from him, perhaps to frighten them into losing some of their attachment, but he decided that that was not how he wanted to be remembered. Let them remember his strength in battle, and his appearance, but also his kindness. No need for all of that to be drowned in fear.
The pathway to the baths was rocky and uneven, winding down through a narrow crevasse to a smaller plain below. It was also longer than he expected since it had to wind up and down and around rocks and large trees instead of going directly there. Had this been the Glories, the path would have been stone instead of dirt, and with steps instead of winding to make it shorter, but the smell of the trees and the dirt was pleasant in the afternoon.
The entrance to the springs consisted of a wooden wall with mortar in between the slats and two doors, one red and one green. Off to the side of the path was a stream, which apparently drained water from the springs. It flowed only a short distance, disappearing into some rocks after perhaps twenty paces.
Looking at the doors, though, he couldn’t remember which one was which. In Dikaia, nude figures would have been painted on them to keep it simple. “Boys, do you remember which door that woman said was for the men?”
They thought about it for a minute, but neither of them could remember. “Flower, you look in that door, and Pepper, you look in that one. They’d probably get mad if I did it and saw one of their women, but you’re children so I doubt they’d care as much.”
There was no one in either of them, so Androkles just shrugged and picked the red door. The inside of the springs was a series of basins of evenly-laid stone, each full of steaming water. Another wooden wall with all the gaps filled in separated men and women. A wooden bench seemed like the perfect place to set their clothing, so they stripped and folded their robes, placing their loincloths atop them in a neat pile, then descended the stone steps into the nearest basin.
The naturally-heated water took some getting used to, which was perfect. The boys held hands for balance and descended sheepishly slowly into the pool. Their smooth, boyish skin reddened the further in they got; Flower’s in particular, because his skin was pale as marble. Suddenly curious, Androkles looked down at his own darker, olive-colored skin, but no part of him was red, not even the pale scars. He’d never thought about it before.
When they finally sat on the flat rock bench, the warm water was deep enough that they had to tilt their heads back a bit and sit up straight to keep their faces out. Once settled, a look of all-encompassing contentment replaced their prior concern. Their tails sank and the boys curled them around their waists; Androkles had wondered for a moment if they would float.
He untied his braid and held his head under the water for a moment to let his hair soak. When he came back up, both boys were already leaping on him and trying to push him back under, laughing at their own boldness. He growled menacingly and tossed each of them back into the water. They tried over and over, with the same result, clearly enjoying themselves. When they cleverly circled around him and attacked him from both sides, he let them push him under.
After a few rounds of that, he started throwing them high into the air and landing them in a deeper part of the pool. He was able to get some impressive height because they didn’t weigh very much, so he made sure they didn’t land head first. When in the air, Flower flailed wildly with a look of terror on his face, every time. Pepper grinned from ear to ear and kept adroitly flapping his arms like a bird, collapsing into a ball right before hitting the water.
That lasted until Androkles noticed them getting weak from the heat, both now thoroughly red from forehead to toe. They were cooked, then. It was time to get out. He instructed them to scrub their bodies down thoroughly to make sure they were clean, then they left the baths, skin steaming in the fresh autumn air. He showed them how to wash their clothing in the stream outside of the baths, rubbing different parts of the cloth together to get the dirt out. It took a while, but finally he was content with their work.
The three of them returned to the village wearing their loincloths and waving their robes to dry in the air, although Flower kept scuffing his on the ground accidentally. Androkles decided that this was how he wanted to remember them—happy, vibrant, and at peace. He would think of them not as the starving, bruised, spindly things he’d found that first night, but instead as the skinny but healthy young boys they now were, each more charming than the other.
After they arrived at the village he took them back to the cart, where they draped their robes to finish drying. Doing his best to act nonchalant, he asked them, “Boys, how do you like it here?”
They both looked at the ground; they probably suspected where this conversation would lead.
“It’s good,” said Pepper after a moment, unsure.
Androkles sighed. “I’m glad you think so. I spoke with Kemen, that guardsman, and he agreed to take you in. They’ll find someone in town to take care of you. I’m giving you the cart and everything on it to help you get settled.”
The boys were silent for a moment, ears twitching nervously. Then Flower timidly asked, “Can’t we come with you?”
“I’m afraid not. I have something to do that will take a long time, and it’ll probably be dangerous. Actually, hold on a moment,” said Androkles. Looking around, he saw that no one was in sight, so he took the pot with all the money in it from the cart and went behind the hut, motioning for the boys to follow.
“Can you remember where this is?” he asked, pointing at a likely patch of dirt behind the hut. They nodded.
“Good. I don’t want you to touch this or tell anyone about it—not anyone!—until you are grown and ready to find a wife. This money will help you on your way if you decide you don’t want to live here, and it’ll help you start a household if you do. Got it? This money is for when you are grown,” he said, digging a hole. He would make it about thigh-deep, just to make sure.
“Why do you have to leave?” asked Pepper.
“And why can’t we come with you?” asked Flower.
He supposed there was no harm in telling them. It would be easier if they understood. “Boys, I mentioned I was a soldier, right? Well, I was, and a good one. I survived in the army for twenty-five years, and then I retired. The army I was in, if you live long enough to retire, they give you a lot of money, much more than this. When they gave me the money, we were still engaged in a series of battles. I didn’t want to leave until the war was done, so I sent the money home to my wife.”
The rocky, packed dirt made it hard to dig a deep enough hole with that little shovel, but he had nothing else to use. He did his best to hurry, before someone came by and noticed. “Only, when I got back home, she was gone. She took all my money and went back to the land she was born in, which is somewhere north of here. She even sold my house and everything in it. I had nothing at all but what I was wearing.”
“Why did she do that?” asked Flower.
“We never had any children. She thought it was my fault, and it might have been. But the note said she was leaving because of it, and this was her payment for all those wasted years,” he answered. He noticed he was getting dirty again, right after bathing. He should really start planning things better.
“So are you trying to get her back so you can have your own children?” asked Pepper.
“No, I’m just trying to get my money back. If I let her live, it’s more than she deserves. But I have to find her first, and I don’t know where she came from or where she went. Not really. I know I’m following her because people have seen her bodyguards, but that’s about it,” he said. He stopped himself from telling them that her guards were Skythanders, since that might make them feel guilty or responsible somehow. He continued, “Once I catch her, I’ll return to my people, buy a nice farm and manor house and some slaves, marry a new wife, and my father’s line won’t end with me.”
Now that he was digging as fast as he could, he made good progress. It was nearly deep enough. The boys stood for a moment, watching him, deep in thought. Flower idly reached for Pepper’s hand, who took it. Behind them, they wound their tails together. Then the boy asked, carefully trying to sound unemotional and not look at Androkles, “If you get another wife, what will you do about children?”
Androkles scowled. A month ago, he might have snapped something like ‘Have sex with her and make some, you foolish runt!’ But now, the man he was slowly becoming didn’t want to hurt the poor boy’s feelings. “I know what you’re asking, Flower, but it’s not going to happen. I might never find Della and my money, and I might die. I don’t know how I’ll even stay warm in the snow. Don’t waste your lives waiting for me to come back and get you. Once I leave, I’m never coming back. Got it? You two have to be happy here.”
Pepper flattened his black ears and looked down at the ground, slouching as if defeated. Flower wiped a tear from his cheek with his free hand. His white hair was almost blinding in the direct sunlight, and Androkles had to look away. Flower said, “Can’t you just use this money and stay here too?”
Androkles sighed again. The boy echoed his own thoughts, and it wasn’t helping. After considering for a moment how better to explain, he said, “When I was ten, just a bit older than you, my father lost everything in a bad land deal. When he found out, he killed himself in shame. I never stopped being mad at him for that, not really. My mother took my sisters and went back to her parents, and I never saw them again. I joined the training school for the army.
“But the thing is, my family was wealthy and respected, once, going back a dozen generations. Now I don’t even own their graves. I have a duty to them, to give them peace, to let their names live on. To fix what my father ruined, and maybe give him rest as well. All those noble men, so many of them. They deserve everything I can give. So I gave an oath that I would get it done or die. A man’s oath is everything. I’d rather die than break an oath like that. However much I might want to stay here with you, or take you with me,” he said, pausing for a moment. His voice was about to catch, and he would not lose his composure in front of them. It was absurd. How starved for love was he, to be so smitten after only a few days with them? “I have to leave you, and do what I can for my fathers.”
“But why can’t you come back for us?” asked Pepper, wiping away a tear of his own.
“Like I said, I can’t promise I’ll come back. I don’t want you to think about me and not be happy here. So I’m never coming back, whether I find the money or not. Tomorrow morning, when I leave, that’s goodbye forever.”