Reading Passage from Ysabel

From Chapter Five of Ysabel

Inside the café, the man in the grey leather jacket, two tables over from where they’d been, puts down his newspaper. There is no need to hide his face any more.

He might possibly have learned something here, he is thinking.

A thread, a way into the labyrinth. This is a possibility, no more than that, but it is that. When you were in urgent need and time was very short and your enemy had most of the weapons – at this point – you used tools like these two children, and prayed to your gods.

In one way it had been obvious, in another, the girl is entirely right: there are a myriad of choices here. And from where he is – outside the fires – he has no easy way to narrow them down.

There are still too many places, that hasn’t changed, but he’s decided something, sitting here – and these two are at the heart of it, despite what he said to them yesterday.

The boy, from the start. From before the baptistry, since he’s being truthful, and he always is, with himself.

He isn’t certain about the girl. He’d waited, and watched them from a distance yesterday, after leaving the cloister. Saw them walk here. Made an assumption they’d be back. If he’d been wrong, if they had met elsewhere, not after school, or not at all, he wouldn’t have been unduly disturbed. Few things affect him that much any more. When he is in the world again, when he returns, his is an entirely focused existence.

He is only ever alive for one thing. Well, two, really.

At the same time, he wasn’t surprised when they did show up here. Nor by what he heard the girl say, from behind the screening pages of Le Monde. They have no business going where they are going two days from now, but he might.

He might have many lives worth of business there. Or not. He might lose this time, before it even begins. It has happened. It is unfair, an unbalanced aspect of the combat, but he has long since moved beyond thinking that way. What is fairness, in this long dance?

His sitting here is, in the end, just a feeble reaching out for signs – from two children who have nothing to do with the tale. At the same time, he has learned (he’s had a long time to learn), that little is truly coincidence. Things fall into patterns. You can miss patterns, or break them, but they are there. He acted upon that yesterday, and now.

He finds a few coins, drops them on the table, rises to go.

‘Why didn’t I know you were here?’

He looks up. His way out is blocked. He is actually startled, even shocked. The sensation is truly strange; a lost feeling remembered. For no easy reason he suddenly has an image of his very first time here, walking through the forest from the landing place, invited but uncertain. Afraid, so far from home. Then coming out of the woods, the lit fires.

He sits down again. He gestures. The boy is standing between the table and the door. He sits gingerly opposite, edge of chair, as if ready to bolt. Not a bad instinct, all things considered.

The newspaper lies on the table between them, folded back. He’d been reading the forecast. Wind, clear skies. There will be a full moon Thursday. He’d known that, of course.

The boy has spoken in English. The man says, gravely, in the same language, ‘You have surprised me again. Brave of you to come back. I take it you sent the girl away?’

Ned Marriner shrugs. He has dark brown hair and light blue eyes, a lean build, medium height, wiry rather than strong. Barely old enough to shave. His face is pale; he will be dealing with tension and fear. Fair enough.

Welcome to my world, the man thinks, but doesn’t say. He doesn’t feel welcoming.

‘No, she just went. I don’t send her places. I didn”t know anything till I was outside. And besides, I’m the one feeling … whatever this is. If you’re dangerous, there’s no reason for her to be here.’

‘Dangerous?’ He smiles at that. ‘You have no idea. I said I wouldn’t kill you but there are others who might view your presence differently.’

‘I know I have no idea. But what does ‘my presence’ mean? My presence where?’ He stopped, to control himself. His voice had risen. ‘And why didn’t I know you were here until I got outside? Yesterday I …’

That last he decides to answer.

‘I was careless. I was screening myself from you, after yesterday in the cloister, but I thought you’d gone and let it down.’

‘I had gone. I don’t even know why I checked inside again. I was halfway across the market square.’

He considers that a moment. ‘Then you are stronger than you knew.’

‘I don’t know anything,’ the boy says again. His voice is lower now, intense. There had been someone like this, long ago. A vague sense tugs at him. But there are too many years between. He has been here so many times.

Ned Marriner leans back, folding his arms defensively across his chest. ‘I have no idea who you are, what happened to me yesterday or today, if you heard us talking about that?’

He nods. The mountain.

‘So what is this about?’ the boy demands. He really shouldn’t be using that tone. ‘You said we were an accident, had no role to play, but you followed, or waited for us.’

He is clever, it seems. ‘Followed yesterday, waited just now. I took a chance you’d come back.’

‘But why?’

The waiter is hovering. He signals for two more of what each of them had been drinking.

A mild curiosity rises. He still has some of that in him, it seems. ‘You don’t feel reckless, interrogating me like this?’

‘I’m scared out of my mind, if you want the truth.’

‘But that isn’t the truth,’ he says. Who did this one remind him of? ‘You came back by choice, you’re demanding answers of me. And yet you knew that I sculpted a column eight hundred years ago. No. You’re frightened, but not ruled by it.’

‘I probably should be,’ the boy says in a small voice. ‘It isn’t a column, either, it’s a woman.’

The quick, familiar anger. A sense of intrusion, violation, rude feet trampling in something private beyond words.

He makes himself move past it. By today’s standards this one is young, can still properly be called a boy. In the past, he could have been a war leader at his age. Fit for challenging, killing. He has killed children before.

The world has changed. He has lived through the changes, at intervals. Coming and going, enmeshed in the long pattern. Sometimes he wants it over, mostly he is terrified, heart-scalded that it might end. You could grow weary beyond measure, feeling all those things at once.

The waiter comes back: an espresso, an orange juice. The brisk, habitual motions. He waits until the man leaves.

He says, still speaking English for privacy, ‘Once this awareness comes to you, it can be a kind of anchor against fear. You know what you are feeling, you know a new thing is in you. The fear lies in not understanding why, but already you’re not the person you were yesterday morning.’

He sips his espresso, put the cup down, adds quietly, ‘You never will be again.’

A cruel thing to say, perhaps; he isn’t beyond enjoying that.

‘That’s scary, too.’

‘I imagine it is.’

He remembers his own first awareness of this boy, decisions made quickly. They look at each other. The boy glances down. Few people meet his gaze for long. He finishes his coffee. ‘Frightened or not, you came back. You could have kept walking. You’re inside now.’

‘Then you need to tell me what I’m inside.’

Another flaring within. ‘I need
to do nothing. Use words more cautiously.’

‘Or what?’

Opposing anger across the table, interestingly. He really isn’t accustomed to talking this much, any more.

‘Or what?’ the boy demands again. ‘You’ll stab me in here? Pull the knife again?’

He shakes his head. ‘Or I’ll walk out.’

Ned Marriner hesitates again, then leans forward. ‘No you won’t. You don’t want to leave me. You want me in this, somehow. What did we say, Kate and me, that you needed to hear?’

Someone else had talked to him this way. That nagging memory still there. Was it centuries ago, or a millennium? He isn’t sure; people blurred after so much time, but he believes he killed that other one.

He looks across the table and then realizes that he was wrong, in fact. This impudent tone isn’t the same as that other, long ago voice: with a degree of surprise (again) he sees that the boy is close to tears, fighting to hide it.

He tries, unsuccessfully, to remember when he had felt that way himself. Too far back. Mist-wrapped, forest-shrouded.

This defiant anger is a boy’s, in the end. Or perhaps in the beginning. Anger at helplessness, at being ignorant and young, not yet an adult when he would become immune (boys thought adults were immune) to the pain he is feeling.

Had he been a different man he might have addressed some of this. Ned Marriner has, after all, come to the edges of the tale and he might even be an instrument.

But that is all he can be. You didn’t confide in tools or comfort them. You made use of what lay to hand. He stands up, drops a few coins on the table. The boy lifts his head to look at him.

‘I don’t know if you said anything I need. It is too long to tell, and I’m disinclined to do so. You are better off not knowing, though it may not seem that way to you. You will have to forgive me – or not, as you like.’

Then he adds (perhaps a mistake, it occurs to him even as he spoke), ‘I wouldn’t go up to Entremont on the eve of Beltaine, though.’

The youthful gaze is sharp, suddenly.

‘That was it, wasn’t it?’ Ned Marriner says. He doesn’t look any more as if he might cry. ‘What Kate said? About that place?’

The man doesn’t respond. He really isn’t accustomed to answering questions. Never had been, if truth were told, even from when he’d entered the tale himself a little west of here, having come across the sea.

Everyone here has come from somewhere else.

He’d said that to her, once. He remembers her reply. He remembers everything she has ever said to him, it sometimes feels.

He walks to the café door and out into the late April afternoon.

The dogs have been waiting, scuffling around the market nearby. They attack as soon as he reaches the street.

© Guy Gavriel Kay


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