Boban Knezevic



Boban Knežević

Slain in Lapis Lazuli

“Not for a thousand langreni,” came suddenly, in the midst of the crowded market of Lapis Lazuli. The sum mentioned was much larger than any of those present had ever had the opportunity to see, but still nobody paid attention to such an attractive offer. The voice was one of those that could not yet with certainty be defined as male or female. Thirteen year old Syra was making her was through the crowd, squabbling with her two years younger brother and her father, who were trying to keep up with her.

“I give ten thousand langreni,” still somebody said. A lively old man in turquoise garments and a dark turquoise collar appeared directly before Syra. That collar meant something, but Syra didn’t know what. A moment later she felt her father’s strong hands on her upper arms. She looked up and her eyes met the cheerful ones of the old man. The presence of her father and many familiar locals gave her the feeling of security, so she retorted with a question: “Oh? And what would you give ten thousand langreni for?”

The old man laughed. He seemed kind-natured, but something in the corners of his eyes was distant and untouchable. “Whatever’s worth that kind of money from a girl like you.”

Syra, beautiful in her youth, but still too young for words like these to cause anything but confusion, looked down and suddenly became nervous. Her father gently moved her aside and stood right in front of the turquoise stranger. He was taller than the stranger by half a head, but the old man did not step back. “Could the unknown Zuav explain his gesture?” asked her father.

“A real Zuav,” sighed Antar, Syra’s brother. Many heads turned, some paused. And Syra recalled many tales of Zuavs, nomad warriors, loners and recluses. Because of the time-old hatred between them and the Magic Ones they were forced to incessant traveling, always during the periods of Light. Therefore, few of them had time to stray from the main Route and visit Lapis Lazuli.

The old warrior merely bowed slightly, not losing his smile. “You have no reason for rage,” he said, “nor for concern. I’m just an ordinary worn-out old Zuav whom the lovely, sweet voice of your daughter reminded of the long-gone days of carefree youth. That defiance in her voice is what keeps your mountain people alive, a people so similar to those of my origins.”

Syra’s father wriggled uneasily. The age that her daughter was in, the age of blossoming and blooming, was awakening all kind of associations in people that they met, and a protective spirit grew within him, frequently out of control.

“All right,” he said simply, shaking his head, eyes averted. He moved on, dragging Syra and Antar with him. The turquoise warrior moved aside. The noise of the market was all around them once more.

“How do you become a Zuav?” asked Antar after a while, when they had slowed their pace somewhat. For this he almost received a slap.

“Only fools forsake their tribes and condemn themselves to eternal wandering. Only those completely senseless choose to become paid assassins and bodyguards instead of leading a normal life…”

“Even if it’s well paid?” Syra wanted to know.

“What’s well paid? There are things that have no price. The average life span of a Zuav is less than ten years. This old man that we met is but an exception, certainly not the rule. Zuavs are hunted by all, feared by all and hated by all, therefore, there are many that cut them down, if they but get the chance.”

“Would you kill a Zuav if you had the chance?” asked Antar.

“Of course not, but I’m an ordinary man. Any member of any Order has good reason to shoot down any Zuav, especially the Magic Ones…”

“Hey,” shouted Antar suddenly, “there’s a Magic One right there!”

“Impossible!” voiced his father and fell silent. Barely five or six paces from them stood a man, a lad almost, all in blue, the festive garments of a Magic One of the highest Order. Leaning against a tree, he was drinking some kind of beverage, looking around him indifferently.

“A Magic One and a Zuav in the same place,” said Antar. “That cannot be.”

The Magic One seemed as though he had heard him. He raised his eyes towards them and sipped his drink, lost in thought. Then he stood on tiptoe and looked about his surroundings carefully.

The next thing that was heard was the father’s sigh. Two men almost brushed against him as they passed by, deep in conversation, both in garments of Guards, with markings of high officers…

“Let’s go home, quick,” said the father. “Something’s going on here.”

“Hey, why can’t we stay and watch?” asked Antar. “Shouldn’t the Zuav and the Magic One fight?”

“Whatever they do, we won’t be here. Towards the gate, quickly…”

Syra started first obediently, her father grabbed Antar by the wrist and yanked him forcefully. While they were making their way through the restless crowd, several agitated cries caught their attention, just one word that they did not understand: “Gathering!”

At the very exit through the gate, Antar cried out: “A Tracer… that’s a Tracer, right. Pop?”

His father didn’t look back, he just kept pulling him on and on.

“I saw a man in an all-white uniform there, too. What kind of Order…”

“Those are Predecessors, dummy… Hey, this is great, this is a fair of the Orders… are representatives of all seventeen of them here? Hey, Pop, what does this mean? Is this a Gathering?”

A large number of locals were leaving the central square of Lapis Lazuli hastily, and it seemed that soon only representatives of the various Orders would remain. That would be a wonderful sight, thought Syra, but there was no chance that she would be permitted to witness it. Who would attack first? Who would take whose side… She almost regretted not spending more time learning about the orders, their mutual relations and affinities.

A while later, when they turned off the stone path onto the grassy shortcut that lead towards home, their father let them slow down their pace.

“That’s enough squabbling, children,” he said. “These are serious matters. There may be conflicts ahead, even war. A hundred different things could happen, each worse than the other… There’s to be no school today, you’re grounded.”

“Why?” protested Syra. “I have biology today. You know how much I like that. We’ll go hunting slizards…”

“No you won’t. I don’t believe anyone will let their children wander around alone in Lapis Lazuli while all those garments and uniforms are parading through here.”

“Mrs. Vaich is sure to hold her classes… during the flood last year she said that that was the best time for biologists, because the water threw out all kinds of creatures onto the land, creatures that otherwise could never be reached.”

“Never mind, I’ll sign your excuses… We must stay together until all this is over.”

“All what?” asked Antar.

“I don’t know,” retorted his father nervously and hastily.

“He does.” whispered Antar.

Syra merely shrugged. She wasn’t overly concerned by any of this; a biology class wasn’t worth a total conflict with her father, after all.

Their house was in the last group of houses in the settlement, right by the river. The bridge that joined shores that were more than a hundred paces apart ended in their yard, or at least it seemed so to Syra; then the road turned. Their house was, in fact, an inn: the entire ground floor was one large room into which tables, benches and pillars were crowded: it wasn’t a particularly luxurious place, but it was clean, cheap and natural. Their yard was the yard of the inn and they didn’t actually have a yard in which they could and might act the way people do in their own yards; there were occasional thefts, binges, and individuals frequently found it too far to go to the outhouse. Syra hated that yard and those people that lingered there, and she couldn’t for the life of her convince herself that she lived in an ordinary house… The world across the bridge, the tree-filled mountain that rose to the skies, the trails that entwined like huge fishermen’s nets, often torn and irregular, were the places in which she felt best. Now she merely threw a longing glance towards the dark greenery of the conifers, aware of the fact that she would be safer there than here, in her own house, her own yard.

“You two, upstairs,” pointed their father towards the stairs that lead to the second floor, “go to your rooms and don’t let me see or hear you.”

And before the children had gone even a few paces, he tore into the inn and shouted in a muffled voice, but not muffled enough not to be heard outside: “A Gathering!”

“See!” said Antar, “I knew it…”

“Well, if you’re so smart, tell me what a Gathering is.”

“I don’t know, but I know that that’s what this is.”

“That’s easy to know, the word was shouted at least fifteen times at the market.”

“Yea, but I knew that it had something to do with the large number of members of the various Orders.”

“That was obvious, too, nobody yelled EARTHQUAKE or FLOOD or TORNADO, they yelled GATHERING, and since they don’t normally yell like that at the market and since normally Zuavs, Magic Ones, Tracers and all the rest aren’t all together at the market, then it’s clear that it had something to do with that…”

“You mean to say that I’m not really clever for immediately realizing what it was about?”

Syra looked him straight in the eye.

“You’re not,” was all she said, and then, before he could say a thing, she snapped: “I have to pee, sorry, we’ll talk some other time. In the meanwhile, see if you can find out what kind of a catastrophe this Gathering is and whether we’re doomed…”

She jumped quickly over the remaining three steps and turned into the bathroom. She had no physiological needs, but still, she pulled down he panties and sat on the toilet seat. Once, a long time ago, she had noticed that sound carried well through the heating pipes in the house, probably due to the drilling of the floors and ceiling and their being thinned in places, and this was most noticeable in the second-floor bathroom. She leaned her ear against the heating pipe and listened. She had managed many times before to catch pieces of conversations from certain parts of the inn, even from her parents’ room, but she was never quite sure precisely where the sound was coming from, and she didn’t want to let anyone in on her discovery in order to determine by experiment which areas were most audible.

A lot of muffled voices could be heard now, so that she couldn’t discern any of them. She remained in the same position for a while, trying to find a more favorable angle for her ear, but she didn’t manage to catch any kind of comprehensible conversation. There were obviously too many people talking at the same time, and yet nobody was in the right spot.

When she got up and started to wash her hands, she noticed in a flash that the place on the pipe which she had leaned her head against for years had already changed color compared to the rest of the pipe. Perhaps she should do something and try to remove the stain, but at the moment she wasn’t capable of the extra effort involved.

Syra threw herself down across her bed and started to make plans for the day. She felt full of energy and didn’t like the idea of spending the rest of the day in her room at all. Still, her father’s order wasn’t something that she could simply ignore and, in fact, her entire dilemma came down to one thing: whether to obey or not.

It would be best if she could get into bed and sleep through the time required, but the uncertainty was getting to her and she knew that she couldn’t take much of it. She had to talk to someone. She went to the window and gazed at the mountain stretching across the other side of the river. Somewhere up there in the hills, invisible from the settlement, the cabin of Jacob the loner was hidden in the shade of the ancient trees. If only she could muster up the courage to go there, everything would be easier, she felt.

Syra went out into the hall and seeked out her mother. She was not to be found on the second floor. Sounds of angry kicking of a ball against the wall could be heard from Antar’s room. Syra stood for a while at the top of the stairway, and then she slowly crept to the very entrance of the inn and crouched against the wall there.

Everybody was talking at the same time so that it was difficult to pick anything out, but she realized that they were all telling their own versions of the misfortune to come. One thing was certain: nobody doubted that bad days had come for the settlement. The diversity of the anticipated events frightened and calmed her at the same time: it frightened her because if even the slightest part of all anticipated came true, it would mean more evil than she could even imagine; it calmed her because so many different versions quite certainly meant that nobody, in fact, had a clue about what was actually brewing.

Suddenly, the shadow of her father rose in front of her. Syra didn’t even have the time to blink before his amazement turned into a holler: “What are you doing here?”

“I… I…” she was paralyzed.

He started towards her. She expected a slap or even a harder blow, but he just grabbed her arm and dragged her up the stairs.

“Come on,” he shouted in a distorted voice.

Syra followed him without argument. Something had happened to her father, he had become mean, with uncontrolled movements, like a terrified animal. He pulled her the entire length of the hall, then through the bathroom to the large mirror, which he almost shoved her against. Roughly he moved the hair from her neck and pointed at the deep scar that had been somewhat hidden by her long hair.

“Do you see this?” he yelled. “Do you see this? Do you know how you got this, huh?”

She didn’t know. The way he was holding her hair hurt her. His disfigured face terrified her… He hollered: “At one of the previous Gatherings, in another town far away from here, several members of various Orders stayed at my inn… Finally one of the Guards crept into the room of a small baby at night and slew her… Do you know what a crib drenched in blood looks like, do you? Only a miracle kept you alive… Gatherings are evil, rituals incomprehensible to ordinary folk, when members of all Orders get together in the same place. They do completely incomprehensible things then, sometimes they fight amongst themselves, far more frequently they randomly hurt certain people… Do you get it? These are things that we don’t understand, but we know that we should stay away from them.”

Syra stood motionless with her eyes full of tears. She had never been hollered at by her father like this, she was trying to understand and make excuses for him, at the same time thinking of all the trouble that the ugly scar had brought her, how various silly explanations had been thought up, how she had always worn her hair long, and longer still…

The door of the bathroom opened abruptly and the face of the old Zuav appeared in the doorway.

The silence became so deep that the murmur of the river flowing beneath the bridge could be heard.

Then the Zuav raised both hands.

“I come as a friend…”

“How dare you invade the privacy of my quarters!” shouted Syra’s father, not letting go of her hair, not moving at all.

“Do not hold that liberty against me, I was sitting in the corner of the room sipping my drink when I heard your voice, unusually close, as though you were whispering in my ear… It was coming from the pipe that I was leaning against… I heard the words you said about the attempted murder of your child and I’m sorry about that, but you must be more careful, much more careful. Nobody would try to kill a babe in her crib for no reason.

“There is no reason, believe me.”

“Unfortunately I cannot believe that, I know much more about these things than you do…”

He went up to Syra and took her from her fathers hands. First he held her gently by the shoulders and shook her. His touch, gentle and firm at the same time, had a calming effect on the girl. He stroked her hair and lightly pushed it back with his hand.

“Every Zuav and some from other Orders will tell you that this scar was made by the curved knife of a Guard, a knife that serves for the slaughter and skinning of animals, but I will also tell you that this was not done by a member of the Guards, though you claim that he was dressed as one… This was done by a layman. No true member of the Guards would miss like that, by the width of a whole finger.

The cold-bloodedness with which the Zuav was talking of matters of life and death fascinated Syra. His fingertips felt the scar over and then retreated.

“This is definitely the work of an amateur. You must tell me the reason, and then I will be able to help you.”

“We don’t need help.”

“Oh yes, you do. For at least two reasons. If a member of the Guards sees this work, he will know that some predecessor of his failed, and regardless of the fact that he’s not familiar with the details, he’ll want to finish the job. It’s in their blood…”

“How could you help us with that… and why would you even want to?”

“You see, if the story that you just hollered here leaks out, and there is always the possibility of a rumor starting, someone might conclude that your child is exceptional in some way, since somebody tried to eliminate her while she was still in her crib…”

“Out!” shouted the father with such force that Syra moved aside. “Get out at once!”

“At least fifteen people can hear you at the moment. Some of them are friends, not all,” said the Zuav in a calm voice, with a peaceful, almost mocking expression on his face. “How can you be sure that one of them won’t say the wrong thing in the wrong place… Permit me to help you, If you let me do so, then I’ll reveal to you my interest in all of this.”

The father was silent. Syra started trembling. How complicated life had become all of a sudden!

“I suggest we go somewhere where sound does not carry so, and you can tell me everything peacefully. I’m on your side; as soon as I saw this cut at the fair, I knew that I must find you and talk to you.”

“There’s not much to tell.”

“Let’s go sit somewhere.”

“All right,” the father finally agreed. “But Syra won’t be present… Go play with your brother.”

“Why? I want to hear.”

The swing of a blow. Syra merely closed her eyes ready to bear the forceful strike, but nothing happened. The Zuav, with unnatural ease, with but two fingers, had stopped her father’s hand.

“There’s no need to strike this child. She didn’t deserve it.”

Her father pulled away his hand and threw a poisonous glance at Syra.

“Obey me instantly,” he forced out through clenched teeth.

Syra turned, her eyes full of tears, and ran out into the hallway; then instead of running to her brother’s room or her own, she snuck outside. She rushed through the yard and made her way towards the bridge with a single intention in mind: to shelter in the woods and find peace and solace in the cabin of Jacob the loner. Right now, he was the only person that Syra could trust. And perhaps he’d know what the Gathering actually was.

In the very center of the bridge someone was standing: a young man in blue garments leaning carelessly against the railing. He watched her with a smile as though she were the very person that he was expecting. She approached him without fear.

When she had almost passed by him, all the while enduring his insolent gaze, he turned away from her abruptly, rested his elbows against the railing and stared into the water flowing by.

Syra took that as a voiceless invitation to join him. Defiant, as she had always been, she did just that. For a moment she turned back towards her house, but the thick shrubbery on the shore concealed it from view. That calmed her completely.

“A pretty place you have here,” the young man stated. His voice was clear, ringing, with a strange accent. He had a merry look in his eyes and a good-natured expression upon his face. “Scenery, water, mountains, flowers… beautiful.”

“You are truly a Magic One?” she asked straight out.

The young man nodded.

“Prove it!”


“Perform some trick, any trick, even a small one, make this river dry over, for example, or make it rain…”

“You know I cannot… or perhaps you do not know. The Light cancels my Power.”

“Not even a tiny little trick?”

“Not one. I am completely powerless in the Light.”

“So, it’s true that you draw your strength from the Darkness, that you are Demons of Evil…”

The young man laughed.

“Why should Darkness be bad?”

“I don’t know, I’m afraid of it…”

“Girls are afraid of everything, grasshoppers, ants, mice, caterpillars, the dark, thunder… Before the arrival of people this planet was horrified by light. Sunny periods were taken to be the ultimate punishment.”

“You are the descendant of people, as we all are…”

“I am, but I belong to the Order that has gotten much closer to the natives than the rest of you…”

“In other words, you are incapable of doing anything to prove that you are not just a young man in disguise.”

“Nobody may disguise himself into any Order.”

“I don’t believe you. I have just heard talk of some disguised Guards.”

“Impossible, that cannot happen.”

“But I heard…”

“But they lied to you… That simply does not happen. Ever.”

“I don’t believe you… You’re just a great big liar. All grownups are liars, they just make all kinds of things up. My brother’s like that, too, ooooh… if only you knew what a liar he is.”

The young man laughed merrily. It seemed that everything entertained him, that he took nothing seriously and that nothing could disturb him.

“Why do Zuavs and Magic Ones hate each other?” Syra asked abruptly.

“I don’t hate any Zuav, I’ve barely even seen any in my life.”

“But you kill them?”

“During the Darkness and when I have my Power and when I meet them… oh, yes, but that is extremely rare.”

“And when it’s Light, they kill you…”

“They try to…”

“Do you know that there is a Zuav in my house?”

“I know, I followed him.”

“If you’re going to fight, I have to let Antar know… that’s my brother, you know, he’d love to watch.”

“To his misfortune, he’ll never be able to watch such a battle, because Zuavs and Magic Ones never fight. We are each so superior in our respective environments that our conflicts last no longer than a moment or two…”

“I don’t understand a thing. What’s the point when there’s no battle… The outcome simply depends upon the season of the year in which you meet.”

“Well yes, but that which seems simple is the very thing that isn’t simple at all. All wisdom lies in sticking to the Light or Darkness.”

“That mean’s that you’re not really wise, for remaining here?”

“You’re a little blabbermouth.”

“Everyone tells me that.”

“Small wonder… although…” and his hand, quick as lightening but lightly, ended upon her face. Syra hadn’t even noticed that movement, but she didn’t have the time to think about it, shivers of excitement flooded through her. The young man spread his fingers and buried them in her hair, throwing it back. Her neck remained completely exposed.

“… although you were almost left without your blabber.”

She pulled away. Waves of unease shook her.

“Hey,” laughed the young man, “don’t be scared, I won’t harm you. It’s just that it’s very interesting to see that somebody tried to slay a child… a very young child.”

“A baby, I don’t remember a thing. My father says that it was a man dressed as a Guard, while the Zuav claims that it was a Guard’s knife, but not the hand of a Guard.”

“You don’t say! Perhaps he’s a Prophet and not a Zuav?”

“I don’t know, he says that no Guard would miss the main blood vessel…”

“Of a grown man, that is so, but not a baby. Nobody practices killing babies… Babies are not proportionally smaller people, they’re anatomically different.”

They were silent for a while, gazing at the water, each lost in thought.

“It’s strange,” Syra said, suddenly.

“What is?”

“Well that… When the Zuav was telling his version, it struck me to be the only possible and true one. Now that you are telling of the same things in a different way, it seems to me that you are right as well. How is that possible?”

“It seems that way because you are little. And a girl.”

“Is that so?” defiantly. She was almost in his face.

He stretched out his hands towards her again. Once more, his touch was very light. He threw her head back and stroked her cheeks.

“You’re going to be a beauty, you’ve got to get rid of that scar.”

“How?” she asked quietly, almost purring. His touch was awakening strange things within her.

“Any better Magic One can do that… Erasing scars is something we practice in school, especially on young skin such as yours.”

“Are you one of the better ones…”

“I’m one of the best…”

“You just don’t have any power…”

“I don’t, that is true, but when the next Darkness comes I’ll come back… and I’ll give this face perfection.”


“You’re full of questions. As though you were stuffed full of them, and wherever a person touches you, several pop out. Some things are not asked because for some things there are no answers. Perhaps you will know then… although I doubt it.”

His caressing did not stop. Syra was all excited in an unusual, never before experienced way; sensations that she could neither recognize nor name were awakening.

Suddenly, the clatter of cart wheels cut through the veil within which the two young people had found themselves. Syra immediately retreated two paces. Some kind of cattle-drawn carriage was approaching the bridge, but it was still out of sight behind the bend.

“You haven’t told me your name.”

“For ordinary mortals, Magic Ones, like all other members of Orders, have no names.”

Syra pouted.

“So, I’m an ordinary mortal.”

“You are now… one day, who knows?”

An ox-drawn cart clattered past them. A man and a woman were staring at them with primitive openness. Syra nervously twirled her hair around her finger, constantly tossing it over the scar.

“I have to go,” said the young man when the cart had moved on.

“When will I see you again?”

“When Darkness falls… wait for me.”

“Hey, stop… tell me just one more thing.”

“Lord, how many questions you’ve asked me today! Don’t you go to school? Don’t they teach you anything there?”

“I take natural sciences. I don’t have the class World Order, though it seems that I should have chosen it.”

“Ask, but quickly, for I have a feeling that that turquoise old man will come limping this way soon…”

“Take care then…”

“No problem. The Zuav is stronger than I am in any case, and more skillful, both with his weapons and without them. But I’m faster. I can always run far enough.”

“Promise that you will answer me.”

“I’ve already promised you one thing today… Don’t be insatiable.”

“Nothing then…” disappointedly.

“Tell me…”

“I know that you won’t reply, those that don’t know don’t reply either… What is a Gathering?”

“For me and for some others it’s a great thing, for others it is fatal, for most it is an occurrence that they don’t even notice. Since you’re not in the first group, try not to be in the second…”

“I’m not in the third, that’s for sure.”

“You still have time to be…”

“And I’m supposed to figure something out now?”

“No,” said the Magic One, came up to her quick as lightening, laid a soft kiss on her suddenly dry lips and ran off…

The echo of his parting words was still ringing in Syra’s ears when it seemed to her that the sound of voices could be heard from the direction of the house. She hurried to the opposite side of the bridge and turned into the bushes. Then she turned and saw the Zuav pacing slowly across the bridge. Sticking to the overgrowth, she crept aside from the bridge, ran across the road and stepped into the woods.

Having gone about a hundred paces uphill, Syra paused on a secluded elevation from which she had an unobstructed view of the entire length of the bridge, her house and the whole northern part of the settlement. The Zuav was standing in the precise spot where she and the Magic One had been a moment before. Leaning against the fence, he was watching the water…

Calm and quiet in her improvised shelter, Syra started slowly replaying in her mind all that had taken place in the past several hours. She caught herself touching the scar on her neck more and more frequently with her fingertips, while her thoughts were trying to sort out the events of that morning. The story of slaying a baby was so terrible that she simply wasn’t able to think about it. Some day, when all this was over, whatever this might be, she would spend more time on that problem. Syra knew that it wouldn’t do any good to ask her father, he’d never tell her, and insisting upon it would only end in a thrashing. Perhaps she might ask the old Zuv, he seemed friendly enough, but she wasn’t sure that he’d tell her, either… Perhaps Jacob the loner, he wouldn’t know anything about her as a baby, that was for sure, but perhaps he might know more about the Gathering. If he knew, he’d tell her, she was sure of that. Later on she’d seek out the Zuav and ask him to retell all that her father had said, and finally she would go home and try to get by with as few smacks as possible…

Now that she had made this short-term plan, she started upon executing it.

There were two kinds of paths through the woods: round-about ones, covered in grass and overhung by trees; and shortcuts, steep, across stone and bare rocks. Syra always chose to be hidden from view from the settlement. Hiding was her way of life, and this turbulent morning, when all was muddled and in a turmoil, it seemed to her that this hiding was hereditary.

When she reached a convenient spot, she turned around and gazed once more upon the scene of the Gathering. The distance was too great to see any details, but the settlement looked unchanged to her… All the Buildings were still in place, there were no fires or great migrations of the people… Perhaps this Gathering did indeed pass unnoticeably for most… Still, those tales from the inn were not consoling at all.

Syra spent a lot of time on the slopes of the mountain, in the company of Jacob the loner, even during the periods of Darkness. She felt completely safe beside that tiny, old little man who had, it seemed, always lived here, near the source of the small spring. She knew nothing of his past, nobody did, but he bothered nobody, and extremely rarely, every third or even fifth cycle he came down to the valley, for quite a brief period and for completely incomprehensible reasons, since he brought nothing, bought nothing, and talked to nobody…

The door of the cabin was ajar, old Jacob was lying on the cot in the corner of the cabin… motionless. He usually stirred at the slightest rustle. Syra went numb for a moment, and then she noticed that his chest was slowly rising and falling.

“Uncle Jacob,” she called out. She called out again. The old man remained motionless. She came up quite close to him, listened to the quiet and even wheezing, felt calmer, mustered up the courage and shook him. His breathing became louder, but he did not awaken. She repeated the whole procedure, this time much more energetically… Finally, with great difficulty, the old man opened his eyes.

“Eh… what… it’s you, dear, give granddad some water…”

“It took me a long time to wake you.”

“Soon you won’t be able to at all.”

With a lot of effort he managed to raise himself to a sitting position, and leaned against the wall… He held the cup of water in his shaky hands and took two long gulps.

“This last Darkness completely exhausted me. I do not believe that I will live to see the next.”

“What is death, uncle Jacob? That’s all everyone is talking about this morning…”

“About death, what, child?”

“They say that there’s a… Gathering in Lazuli, right now…”

“Death and Gatherings… They are related and not related, as all things are. Just as Light, Darkness or floods are death for some, success for others, for most they’re just ordinary things.

“What’s a Gathering?”

The old man took another gulp.

“This water is healing, the best water on the entire mountain, right here, this tiny spring… remember that… Gatherings, they take place from time to time, we people know neither why nor how, and they won’t tell us. Sometimes knowledge isn’t a good thing. It burdens, eats a person from within, spends him… the person looks healthy on the outside when in fact he has rotted… And one day he just goes poof, falls apart and a cloud of smelly dust flies out…”

Syra sensed that these words had a deeper ambiguity and since she was unable to fully understand them, she strove to remember them as accurately as possible so that she could figure them out completely some day.

“You see, dear, I have carried a great secret in my life, I bear a knowledge that seems as though it were cursed. Its goal is that I never tell it to a soul, until right before my death, and that person shall, in turn, take upon himself the further carrying of this knowledge, until he turns it over to another some distant day in the future. I have found nobody that I would reveal this to but you… and so, you must be careful, listen to me and remember everything. Do not try to understand, just remember…

The old man took another sip of water, and then closed his eyes, as though he were gathering up his strength. He started to talk before he reopened his eyes.

“Do you know where, five or six cycles ago, you were quite a small girl, do you remember, where we picked edelweiss?

“Yes, that’s…”

“No! Don’t say it out loud, never say it. The important thing is that you know where it is.”

“I know for sure. Many times…”

“Good… good. Do you remember the crevice that you wanted to crawl into, and I didn’t permit you to?”

“Yes, but I…” Syra lowered her eyes, blushing, “crept through there many times later on.”

“And what did you see…”

“Well… there’s some kind of dark hole, endlessly deep. I threw pebbles into it and they fell for a long time. Later on I started to worry that I might fall in, so I stopped going there. Now the passageway is completely overgrown with brush…”

The old man laughed.

“I planted a wild rosebush there, it’s thorny, crumbles rock and it’s the best possible watchman… well, you see, child, this is very important, you must remember this well… that opening is the salvation of this people, it has been many times in earlier times, never during my lifetime, and I hope that it won’t be during the course of your life either, but we have to keep the secret of it alive…”

“I don’t really understand.”

“It will suffice for you to remember that that’s the entrance to the Citadel… When wars and the sufferings of people begin, the Citadel is the shelter for the entire Lapis Lazuli. Few are those that know of the Citadel, even fewer those that know exactly where it is…”

“So, if something should attack us sometime, or threaten us, we’re to shelter there?”

“Precisely. Long ago, a thousand or more cycles ago when attacks were more frequent, practically everyone in the settlement knew where to run; in time, the dangers almost disappeared, the knowledge died out through the generations, and now only few of us that know remain… but you can never tell whether, five or fifteen generations from now, it will be necessary to take shelter in the Citadel once more.”

“Why me?”

“You are young, pretty, smart… you know how to talk, when to be silent…”

“Everyone tells me that I’m a blabbermouth…”

“So it should be, he who talks a lot learns what should be said and when, he who is silent all the time makes a mistake when he speaks but one word… I have survived over two hundred changes of Darkness and Light, I have learned to judge people, it’s been a long time since I’ve been mistaken… you’re the right choice.”

Syra merely shrugged. All was happening so dizzyingly, from the moment of the first encounter with the Zuav at the market she had received more information about herself than she had before in her entire life.

“You must take care, child. I think that I know the purpose of this Gathering.”

“What is it?”

“And I think that I know the true intention of the one that attacked you as a young baby.”

“That interests me more than anything.”

At that moment a crash tore off the weak door of the cabin. A man, large and wide, in the clothes of a Guard, crammed the doorway in his attempt to enter. Behind him several more could be discerned. All were armed with knives and short swords.

“It interests us as well, a lot.”

He went up to Syra, who let out a frightened scream, and grabbed her by the head. She tried to pull away, she even tried scratching him, but he kicked her in the side. She fell and curled up like a kitten slammed against a wall. The Guard bent over her and looked at her neck.

“It’s her,” he shouted to someone outside. And added immediately, not so loud: “This is called success, men, we found the little runt straight away… Old man, would the following deal be all right: we heard your every word, the only thing we don’t know is where that stupid rock is, and we would really like to know that, we really would, you tell us where it is and we spare the child.”

The old man laughed, and his laughter sounded like rattling.

“When you find out what you want to know you’ll kill us.”

“That’s true, in any case, but let’s try it this way, you tell us where it is and we kill you quickly. It doesn’t really matter in your case, but we could torture the girl for days, take our pleasure, carve her, roast her, eat her… you could spare her all of that. Just show us the rock and you’ll be dead immediately…”

The old man swiftly, completely unexpectedly and quick as lightening, leapt forward with some kind of pike that he had drawn from somewhere, unnoticed. The tip started to penetrate the belly of the Guard when he turned, let go of the girl and with two terrible blows beat the old man to death.

Syra reacted instantly, she ran out, but at the very door another Guard grabbed her leg, knocked her down so forcefully that her knees bled and sat on her, twisting her arm into an unnatural position. She cried out.

The wounded Guard tottered out of the cabin. He pulled out the pike and held his stomach, cursing all the while.

“Dirty little bastard.”

“Is he dead?” the third Guard asked.

Nodding, painful grimaces.

“You’re sure…”

“I separated his head from his body…”

“How’s your wound?”

“A scratch, but it hurts… this brat will pay for it all. First I’m going to fuck her until her eyes pop out. Move aside…”

The sound of sharpening knife against knife was heard. Everybody stiffened. Ten paces away, the old Zuav stepped out from behind a largish tree and stood holding two long throwing knives in his hands.

“Well, well, what’s this, an old folk’s home?” the Guard said.

“Let the girl go,” the Zuav ordered.

“There are three of us.”

“You know that you don’t stand a chance.”

“Perhaps,” the Guard that was sitting on the girl said, pulling out his curved knife and touching the scar with the blade. “And you know that I could tear her throat out with a knife in my eye.”

A moment of silence. Then the quiet words of the Zuav:

“The life of the girl is unimportant. What’s much more relevant is that none of you three leave this place alive.”

“From the perspective of the Universe that’s so, but not in your cramped Zuav brain.”

“It really takes courage to slay a babe in the crib.”

Mindless with fear, blinded by all the pains in her body and chest, Syra was simply incapable of doing anything but sobbing tearlessly with her eyes closed.

“Enough talk!” shouted the Guard that was sitting on her. “I suggest you throw your knives away and walk off to the nearest inn. Have a drink and forget about us… I’ll count to three, and then slaughter… One, two…”

“Three,” a voice came from somewhere close by. All heads turned in that direction, Syra felt that the blade upon her throat had moved… At that moment a bang was heard, similar to Master Jolly striking a desk with his cane. The next thing she felt was the body of the Guard falling on top of her. Screaming, Syra freed herself from the weight upon her and leapt off to the side. The scene was quite uncommon. The young Magic One was standing with some kind of strange smoking object. The Zuav had thrown both of his knives, one Guard was falling, stabbed through the throat, and the other was running uphill.

“I’ll catch him,” said the young man.

“He won’t go far,” said the Zuav. “He’s wounded in the belly and the arm… Aren’t pistols forbidden and out of use?”

“They are, but we have kept them in secrecy through the generations… we only use them in extremely dire straits.

He turned and ran after the Guard.

The Zuav came up to Syra and took her into his arms. She started crying uncontrollably. Her sobbing lasted until two more shots were heard. Then she raised her head and looked in the direction in which the young Magic One had run off.

“It’s all over now,” said the Zuav. “Calm down…”

She started towards the cabin. The Zuav held her back.

“You don’t want to look inside… Come on, let’s go. I’ll take you home, and then I’ll come back to take care of all of this. We mustn’t leave so many traces.”

“And the Magic One?”

“A young fraud… Don’t expect him before Darkness.”

“I thought that Zuavs and Magic Ones are enemies.”

“That’s true.”

“But you fought together here?…”

“We didn’t… sometimes it happens that mortal enemies have a common goal at a Gathering. It’s not a joint battle, just a certain set of circumstances.”

“If he comes back, don’t hurt him. He promised me that he would remove my scar.”

“He can’t do that, he’s just a common little fraud. For ignorant people all Magic Ones are magicians. but in reality they are not, there are many subspecies, this one is just an Illusionist.”

“But… he told me that he would come.”

The Zuav stroked her hair.

“He will, do not doubt that.”

The girl washed her face by the spring, rinsing her eyes with cold water for a long time, repressing the images of violence and pain; she washed her knees and hands, shook the dust off her dress…

“Passable,” said the Zuav. “Let’s go.”

She threw one more glance towards the cabin, and then looked through the sparse woods that surrounded them for some kind of movement. Somewhere out there, hidden behind some bush, or in the branches of a tree, or lying flat among the thick ferns, the young Magic One was hidden. And he was watching her. She was certain of this. Perhaps the Zuav really was right, perhaps the young man was nothing but a liar and a fraud, perhaps she really never should trust him, but, she knew, none of that would prevent her from awaiting his return with longing… although, she wasn’t quite sure why.

While they were approaching the bridge, Syra started feeling better and better.

“It’s a shame that I can’t tell my brother about all of this. He’d be green with envy…”

“Or else he wouldn’t believe you.”

“Perhaps… He’d believe me, he’s gullible…” Syra glanced cautiously towards the old warrior. Then she spoke quietly: “May I ask you something?”

The tone of her voice was such that the Zuav paused.

“Ask,” he said in a serious voice.

“… but promise me that you will reply?”

“Before you even ask?”

“Well, yes…” Syra looked down, fighting the unease that she felt. “That spot in our inn… the one you heard the conversation from… would you show me where it is?”

“Oh… I couldn’t do that. If you had asked me to disclose to you the order of the Gathering, my true name and heritage, or the purpose of the role allotted to you in this world… we could have reached an agreement, but this, never, not for a thousand langreni…”

They stepped onto the bridge, laughing crazily. •


© 2004 Project Rastko, TPA Janus & individual copyright owners