His Conquering Sword

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Authors: Kate Elliott
khaja master. I don’t know. I don’t remember seeing any bodies except that of my father.”
    “Oh, Goddess. I’m sorry, Aleksi.”
    Aleksi found her sympathy interesting. He never told jaran as much as this; any respectable jaran listener would have been appalled that a child could lose his entire tribe and still go on living. The gods had cursed people for less. “It was a long time ago,” he said, to reassure her.
    “Then what happened?”
    This was harder. He managed it by breaking each word off from the next. “Then Anastasia took us away from there. She took care of me for as long as she could. Three or four years, I think.”
    “What happened to her?”
    Aleksi set the cup down and bowed his head. This one memory, he could not bear to look upon, but it flooded over him nevertheless. Anastasia had grown steadily weaker over that third—or was it fourth?—winter and then, with spring, she became feverish and unable to eat. The gods had spoken strange words through her mouth, and she had seen visions of creatures terrible to behold and creatures as sweet as flowers, and she had wept for fear of leaving him when he was still too young to take care of himself. Not that she had been so much older than he was, but her first course of woman’s blood had come on her that past autumn, so she was no longer a girl, although of course she had never received any of the rites investing her with her womanhood.
    The doctor waited patiently. Aleksi’s throat was thick with emotion, too choked to speak. Hands shaking, he lifted the cup to his lips and sipped at the tea. The gesture soothed him enough that he could force out a sentence. “The gods took her on a spirit journey, but she never came back.”
    “Ah,” said the doctor. She poured more hot tea into his cup, and by that gesture Aleksi knew he had her friendship. “You love Tess very much, don’t you?”
    He glanced up at her, astonished. She smiled warmly at him; he did not need to reply, because she already knew the answer and the reason for it. With her, he was safe. How strange to know that. How strange to be safe at all. He felt dizzy.
    “Goddess,” she said, “you must have been—what?—eight or ten years old? Well, what did you do then?”
    “I wandered. I got by. Eventually I came to the Mirsky tribe late one summer. Old Vyacheslav Mirsky’s wife was very ill, but they had no children or grandchildren to help them. It was a terrible disgrace, how the tribe treated him. Everyone knew what a great rider he was, but they thought Stalia Mirksy ought to know that her time was through and simply remain behind on the grass so that she wouldn’t slow the tribe down. Stalia kept telling Vyacheslav she ought to, but she was all he had, and he wouldn’t let her do it. So I saw—well—I saw that if a small orphan boy helped bring in fuel and water and beat carpets and built fires and gathered food and went to get their share of the meat at slaughtering time, they might let that boy sleep on the ground next to their tent without driving him away.”
    “And did they?”
    But while the memory of Anastasia always filled him with a horrible dread, a painful, dizzying fear that his heart had been torn out and dropped into a black abyss from which he could never retrieve it, the memory of Vyacheslav and Stalia always brought tears to his eyes. “No, they took me into their tent and treated me as their own grandchild. Stalia got better. They said I was their luck. Eight years I lived with them. Vyacheslav trained me in the saber. You’ve heard of him, of course.” By her expression, he saw that she hadn’t heard of Vyacheslav Mirsky. “You haven’t! Well, everyone knows he had the finest hand for the saber in all the tribes, before he grew too old to ride in jahar. The Mirskys still brag about him, though they treated him badly once they had no more use for him.”
    “And then?”
    “Then one winter they both died of lung fever. They were ancient by then.

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