The sun was a sickly pink smear in the sky, new opened and obscured by clouds. Mok stood at his accustomed place atop the ramparts of Loesser keep. The guards had noticed him of late, though they refrained from harrying him. There was something nascent in his stance that gave them pause, so they thought it better to ignore him than to issue any manner of challenge. Let him go where he would, it was only Mok, after all. He was no one. If his master was fatigued of late, and gave him extra leave, what of it? The guards were farmers, mostly, craftsmen as well. This service of standing watch was required of them by their lord, but it was not required of them to wonder.
A hard wind lashed the rising face of stone, and snapped between the over-sized merlons to either side of Mok. He thought of the old stranger, Timothean, and of his tarnished gift. It was a constant pain to him, for the silver never warmed, but scalded with its cold. Yet, he would not relinquish it from his person.
He had poisoned his Lord, and poisoned his Lord's brother. The only nobles of the Keep he spared were the women and the venerable Thyme Kent, Midlim's grandfather. He was half-mad as it stood. Let him live and suffer.
After Midlim had beaten the stable boy to death, and Mok had stood over the corpse of that filth-swaddled child and burned the body as his master did command, a hard knot of resolution had concreted in his belly. Cook and the Butcher both loved him, and it had been easy enough to dose the wine casks with the amber liquid from Timothean's flask. In the moments of stolen time when he poured the poison and resealed the cask, Mok's conception of himself had broken. His very birth had been ordered only in the understanding that his father would be too old to serve Midlim as a Lord deserved. The evening of Mok's birth, a gloaming affair, as they all were, his father had been beheaded. The newborn Mok had been ritually cleansed in the blood of his progenitor, and then with the water of the Keep's central well. By this most ancient method was the soul of contumacy contained by its harmless shell for yet another generation. In using Timothean's gift he had betrayed his master. He was no longer the Mok he had been.
Midlim sat up in his bed, sweating pallor, eyes bloodshot. The chamber stank of stale distemper, tin and ammonia and nightsweat. He reached for his sword, but it was not at his side.
"Quay!" he bellowed. "Quay!"
A wall slid open and shut, and a grizzled stick of a man in what appeared to be three dozen vests of varying size and style materialized at the bedside.
"Quay!" For a moment Midlim seemed not to realize that he was no longer alone. Then his gaze focused. "Quay, where is my sword?" The blankets twisted and wrinkled under his hands.
The old man wrung his hands. "Master Quick has it, my Lord."
He ducked his head.
"Kevon? Why should Kevon have it?" Lord Loss looked younger than his years, which were not numerous. He struggled to twist meanings out of simple words, and to keep track of where he was. "My sword should be always at my side. That was my father's sword, Quay..."
"Yes, my lord. I am sorry, lord. Shall I send for him?"
"Send for him." He sank into his soiled cushions, haunted and drawn. "Send for Kevon. He has my sword, Quay. He must return it to me."
The servant bowed himself away, disappearing into the walls, and Midlim faded in and out of awareness. Footsteps approached, and Quay led the Master at Arms into the room.
Kevon Quick was midway through his life's travails. He was possessed of a staid mien, and kept a grey-black beard neatly trimmed along his jaw and chin. He wore a tabard depicting a stylized sword, broken in three pieces. This was the sigil of House Loss. It hung over his hauberk of well-oiled chain and the padded leathers beneath. His gloves were dyed silver, signifying his rank. The dye itself was uncommon outside Carrolan, its making a well guarded secret. His hands, too, flashed like liquid steel. He had come from the practice fields.
Midlim blinked blearily, recalling, with an effort, what this was about. He struggled to sit. "Kevon, where is my sword?"
"I keep it in my own quarters, lord."
The Master at Arms gazed past his lord and on the tapestry that draped the wall beside the bed. It was a scene out of a tale, a wing of knights led their lord against a giant beast of ice. The lord held high a sword that could have been made of glass. It shone with an inner light. Kevon did not know the story well, in a house as ancient as his own there were too many stories, ancient and otherwise. Still, the image always stirred his heart.
"You are sick, lord. You need rest. You are well guarded here, and there is no call for a sword."
"I call for it," Midlim said irritably. "It is mine."
Consternation flicked across the weapon-master's face. "You do not remember giving it to me, lord?"
Midlim's forehead wrinkled, and his mouth thinned. "I would not... I gave you my sword?"
"Yes, lord. It was after you began to attack the stones of the Keep. I feared you would snap it, and I prevailed upon you to allow me to keep it until you were well. Are you well now, lord?"
"You..." Midlim's visage twisted, weakness and diffidence transforming into something monstrous. He clawed his way free of his linens and began to cry out the name he had been taught to depend upon since he was old enough to speak.
* * * Mok stood atop the battlement, contemplating guilt. When his master had sickened, and it seemed that he would surely die, Mok had been assailed by the most terrible regret. Betrayer, liar, fraud. Murderer. All that he knew and had known spoke out against him, or seemed to. And as if the vault of the sky and the great limbs of the great tree demanded it, Mok had opened the flask and imbibed Timothean's poison himself.
A flood of fire through his veins, a riot behind his eyes. It had subsided, after a time. He had felt enlivened as never before. Clearly, to him, this was no venom, and he no longer wished to die.
He saw Quay come out of the nearest tower, gesturing wildly. It could only be something to do with his master. A month ago, he would have sprinted through the keep at the suggestion of Midlim's need. Now he walked, swift enough, but not hurried.
"Come quickly Mok!" Quay harried him, "What are you doing up here? You must be at his side!"
Mok smiled and passed the withered servant by. Many of the other serf slaves saw him as he crossed the courtyard.
"Look," Slop said to Porter. "That's the one who buried Horse."
The child carried a bucket of his namesake, and stopped a moment, and stared.
"Buried his ashes," Porter agreed. "Aye."
They had seen something strange in him, when he had taken the body of the groom out to the midden heaps, and a few had followed. There was a look then, as the corpse burned, that was out of place on the face of one born into servitude. If there was outrage in the groom's death, the others had not felt it. They were numb to such injustices, and a lord would do as a lord willed, as they had always done. This was the way of the land, and the land did not change. This was accepted.
In Mok's face there had been acceptance of another sort, burying the ashes that by another would not have been buried. The ones who saw had felt, though felt what they did not say. The ones who did not see were told, and the weight of Mok's acceptance did not leave his expression.
"He walks like a Lord," said Chalice.
"They say his father was a lord," Bells told her, "but captured in battle."
"Who says?" Chalice asked incredulously.
Bells shrugged. "I've seen him standing on the wall. So I believe it. The guardsmen let him go wherever he wants."
"You don't know," Chalice chided, "you're just saying so."
Mok entered his lord's chamber's a step behind Quay, though he exhibited no interest, and looked about the rooms as one who had never before seen them, despite his quotidian familiarity. Midlim was by this time incapable of screaming, his voice quite spent by his exertions. Still he repeated, in a raw whisper, "Mok," upon seeing the face of the same.
Kevon Quick had mustered him well enough that he was again in bed, and the Master at Arms stood phlegmatically to one side, watching all that transpired with the mask of one who had no stake in the matter.
"Lord," Mok said, and gave a slight bow. Kevon raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. Quay only scowled, though it could hardly be said that this expression was significantly other than that which habitually graced his features.
Midlim Loss shuddered beneath his quilts. "Mok," he said, "fetch me my sword."
Mok did not move.
"FETCH ME MY SWORD!" Spittle gleamed upon his lips.
"You can't be trusted with a sword."
Midlim was on his feet with surprising quickness, febrile in his sudden strength. He rushed upon Mok, who still made no move, but did not strike him. Rather he seemed almost to cower before him, for all the threat in his manner and intent. Unable to make his point upon the one who had offended him, Midlim spun on Quay, the master clerk, and set about beating him.
The old man hardly made a sound at the first blow, collapsing like a thing of wicker work and twine, with an exhalation of dust.
Then Mok was there, seizing the wrist of Lord Loss and tossing him bodily across the chamber. He hit the wall with an exceedingly audible thump and slid down it to lay still. The sound of tallo scraping leather bespoke Master Kevon's opinion on these events. The severely mustached man held his bright sword blade level at Mok's neck. He hardly knew what had happened, but he knew that things were not as they should be. Was this even Mok? Or had the manservant been possessed by some malignant spirit out of the deep earth? The look that Mok gave him was certainly not what he would have expected from a young man bred for servitude. A lord's son would not have regarded a length of exposed tallo with such disdain.
"I know not what has become of you, Mok. You seemed a good enough boy for your kind. I knew your father, and he would have never touched his master in anger, never. No matter the cause." He paused, unnerved by the steadiness of this servants gaze, by this keyless face. "Our Lord's malady has stressed us all. He is not in his right mind." Then Kevon Quick said something he never thought, but that he instantly knew to be right. "You don't belong here anymore, Mok. I don't understand what has happened, but our Lord is not likely to recover. If he does, I fear it shall be a recovery into madness. If the line is ended, then so is the tradition that binds you to it. I will give you a horse, some food. Go now, and ride west to Urmondane. They have always a need of men in the mountains, and they will not ask from where you came."
A long moment passed, and still young Mok said nothing. Kevon's resolve quickened.
"You cannot stay here," he said. "Allow me to help you escape this, or die for striking our Lord. But you cannot stay."
It was with a sense of shock that he registered Moks hand curling around his own where it gripped the pommel of his sword. The young man had moved with appalling swiftness around the dangerous edge of the blade. Acting with the reflex of endless years of drilling, Kevon twisted free of that clasp, or he should have. Impossibly, Mok had spun smoothly along with the weapon-master's maneuver, as if they had practiced for a dance, and now he had caught up Kevon's other arm behind his back.
Dumbstruck, the weapons-master struggled against the younger man's strength, and he was overcome. Soon naked tallo clattered against the stones, and he was pressed down upon his back. He was slapped, and he spluttered the beginnings of invective, and was slapped again more forcefully.
When his vision cleared, he met his captor's eyes, and saw in them a horrible clarity. His skin prickled, and he caught the scent of bitter flowers upon Mok's warm breath.
"Your Lord is dead. I am your Lord."
Kevon paled. "Are you mad?" Another slap, and he tasted blood. Of course Mok was mad, of course. He had caught the same vile distemper that had struck Lord Loss so low. These changes in his, and this strength, it was the strength of a madman.
"Please," Kevon said, "let me help you. You can still leave this place, even if he is dead. Let me up, Mok." Now the tone of a master lent an edge to his words, the voice that had gifted the freemen who came to serve as guardsmen with at least the semblance of sword skill and backbone. "This is not the way. Unhand me!"
The pressure on his chest increased, and his ribs strained painfully.
"Thyme Kent will adopt me," Mok said with utter reasonableness. "I will give him no choice. And with the rest of the noble line dead or in surrender, this Keep will be mine. I will be Lord Loss."
"The Wheaten crown will not allow it. Even if Lord Kent seals it all with his own wax."
"The crown is far away, and this is only the beginning."
Mok's eyes, like the rest of him, had always been unremarkable. Now traces of violet shown through the brown, like some eldritch earthblood rising out of loam, and they held Kevon Quick as surely as the hands. "Give me your word of service, and you shall remain the Master at Arms. Otherwise you shall depart." A bare smile. "This is the choice I give you, and the promise that if you do remain, you shall have more work to do than you have known in your lifetime, and more pride."
The weapons-master would have refused both offers, and taken the third unspoken, death, if not for that last word. There was something weighty in the way he said it, something grim and unrelenting: pride.
Kevon nodded and was allowed the freedom to stand. His bones, well abused by years and service, ached terribly. But his head felt full of light.
They both turned at the sound of the sliding door, and Quay reentered the room by means of the stewards passage. In the scuffle, they had not sensed him slip away. A red welt had already raised across half his face where he had been struck. His look was solemn, and laid across his hands was Midlim's sword, the sword of House Loess. Etched into the lustrous tallo was an unusual design, a sort of crystal lattice, that covered it from tip to haft.
Quay raised the blade to Mok, expressionless.
"My Lord, I believe that this is yours."
Mok took hold of the sword, and hefted it to examine more clearly. It was outlined in white gold against the backdrop of the sky through the chamber's only window, high in the wall.
Kevon saw this and was afraid.