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The night’s misadventures seemed to haunt Martin every mile of the way back to the city. His face was shuttered, his eyes often downcast and filled with shadows. He murmured once that the journey seemed much longer than he remembered, and Leon could appreciate that. Remorse was a harsh taskmaster.
A little before noon — when the sky was lowering with incoming weather and the old folk would have been starting to talk about the chance of a shower by evening — they were on the Esketh road, which wound around the long, gentle slopes that climbed up out of the badlands. Ahead of them was green, fertile country following the banks of the River Esku; and there, in a place where the forest had been cut back centuries before to clear space for farming and building, was the city itself.
They called it the ‘Rose of Rasanu,’ since it lay at the heart of the old kingdom, and the name was fitting. It was easy to see why this land was guarded so jealously, and from the look on Martin’s face, Leon knew full well, he was keenly aware of the necessity for the militia, the requirement for young people’s service in it. Martin had no argument to make against the system; only with the part he rightly ought to play in it.
As a flight of waterfowl shot low overhead, on their way to the river, Leon pulled up the horse and slid down to walk for a few miles, stretch his legs and rest the vanner at the same time. On the shoulder of a hill he stopped to look out at the view of Esketh, and gave a low chuckle.
“Damn, where does time go to? It has to be ten years since I saw the city from this exact spot. I’d forgotten how beautiful it is. It’s so … so green.” He glanced sidelong at Martin. “You haven’t traveled far, have you?”
“No. I’ve never had the chance,” Martin admitted. “I thought, one day…” He shrugged, let the idea go by.
“The more you travel,” Leon told him, “the more you’ll realize how precious is your own home. Not many places are so green, so welcoming, as this. Esketh is so different.”
“Different from what?” Martin looked up at him out of wide, blue eyes, eager for anything he could learn of the world beyond.
“So different from the lands where I’ve been soldiering for far too long,” Leon said with a humor so dry, it was arid as the eastern steppes. “Places where the trees burn brown in the sun and you often draw your pay in water, which is the most precious commodity they know. Places were common water can be sold and bartered for gold and jewels, and is smuggled like diamonds.”
“Where?” Martin wondered.
“North and east of here.” Leon gestured over his shoulder. “Far beyond the Anghari roads. My people only roam as far back as Setzele. A dozen miles beyond that, and they’d be in territory belonging to the Venhira, and it would be drawn swords and spilled blood.” He gave Martin a look of dark amusement. “The roads and ranges were decided at least a thousand years ago. So long as the Gypsy clans stay where they belong, there’s peace.”
“At least you know where you belong,” Martin said with a bitterness that was unusual in one so young.
Leon dropped a hand on his shoulder. “You’ll find your place in the world — or make it. You’ll be home in an hour.” He tilted his head at Martin. “Have you worked out what you’ll say to Roald — and how you’ll say it?”
A wind stirred restlessly across the hills. Leon thought he smelt the sea on it, and memories of fishing boats, and cockleshells bobbing in the estuary, rustling fields of reeds and flights of gray swans, flooded his mind as Martin raked the blue-black hair out of his face and said,
“Roald’s been very good to me for a long time. But I told you how he’s been watching me lately, waiting for me to pick up a sword — go soldiering like him.” His brow creased. “Like you.” The dark head shook slowly. “He knows by now, I can’t … won’t. I’m just not a soldier, Leon. Is that so wrong? Is it so bad?”
But Leon only shrugged. “It’s not wrong or bad at all. But for more than a century that anyone recalls — and a lot longer, that they can’t! — the tradition has been militia service to safeguard the city. Esketh depends on not having to hire mercenaries. This is why the city is rich, prosperous. If the city fathers had to pay an army of bastards like me to keep them safe, they could only do it with taxes and tithes. There’d soon be poverty.” He shrugged eloquently. “The occasional lad going against the tradition isn’t a bad thing, but it’s going to make your life … different. Difficult.” He lifted a brow at Martin. “You have to know this.”
“I do know it.” Martin sighed. “I’ve always known it. But … surely I have a choice! There has to be something else, instead of the militia.”
“There’s always a choice,” Leon said thoughtfully. “You just might not like what it is.” He looked Martin up and down with a deep frown. “Do you want me to talk to Roald for you?”
“You’d do that?” Martin seemed to pull his shoulders square. “Damnit, I should talk to Roald myself. I’m trying to take charge of my own life, not pass responsibility to someone else! I made a mess this time, but I can do better.” He raked the wind-tossed hair back out of his eyes and looked northwest, and down, toward Esketh. “I’ll talk to Roald,” he said softly. “You … you talk to the sheriff. All right?”
“All right.” Leon stirred. “Come on, now. You can be home in an hour.”