The two men were standing in the monastery hall in front of Solvo, the peculiar guru of the South who had always provided independent counsel and assessment on all worldly things across the many kingdoms. Saltus had known him well, years ago as an apprentice, and was utterly bewildered by the change in his once adored teacher.
‘You do realize that one of us is lying to you?’ Saltus said frostily.This was not a place to manifest his former affections, which he had anyway started to question in this puzzle of loyalties.
‘It is true then. You have lost any skill of judgement,’ said Cassius with scorn in his voice.
‘What I have lost is my patience and desire to spend another moment listening to either of you. Have respect, leave this place! I have no understanding of your affairs nor will I take part in them.’
‘All right then. I am taking Tristan with me,’ Saltus declared.
‘I don’t think it’s in boy’s best interests, nor that it would appeal to him,’ Solvo had again assumed the composed posture and look that were, as he thought, expected of him.
‘May I hear him say that?’
‘Young people’s minds are like rivers,’ the old man said in a softened voice, both his hands raised as though he was holding a very delicate piece of fabric. Saltus did not manage to suppress a little laugh at this sight; the corners of Cassius’s lips too were engaged in maintaining a dignified expression: for the first time in years they agreed on something – the fact that guru’s wits had decidedly abandoned him. But Solvo’s stream of wisdom was unstoppable:
‘In their swift ways of life, that often imply great courage, they’re not bothered by the rocks under their feet and dark caves and traps. They think themselves so sharp, so fearless. And they are fearless. But it’s a good riverbed, an ancient riverbed of old knowledge and tradition, that keeps them safe and guided throughout their journey. It contains them, holds them together and keeps them on track.’
‘Holy treetop, you’re a poet now. Will there be a reading in the tavern?’, said Saltus.
‘A little twisted for my taste. And what do you rely on in your journey, your profundity?’ Cassius was getting impatient.
Solvo closed his eyes, inhaled through his long and narrow nose and uttered in a velvety voice: ‘Fair wind.’ He opened his eyes and smiled with fake slyness.
‘Good luck with your wind!’ Cassius bowed vigorously and left the hall. Saltus bowed and did the same.
He had to go and find Tristan. That should not be too hard he thought. The place had never been overly supervised, and he found it hard to imagine that the man that Solvo had become could actually exert genuine authority over people, be they hermits, monks, guards or soldiers, and thankfully Saltus had not seen any of the latter around. He crossed the courtyard and headed towards the private chambers. As a young man, in other times of confusion, he had spent a good three months living here. They were not bad memories at all, in fact quite the opposite. A pleasant thought crossed his mind: he could not imagine secluding himself in here forever, but another streak of solitude and quiet he could do with when this would all be over: a holiday. For the old time sake he decided to start the search at his own old room.
‘Where do you think you are going, Saltus?’ A familiar voice resounded in the archway: Cassius's fury hadn't taken him far.
‘Are you talking to me?’
‘I believeI am, if you are who you look like. Too often people turn out to not be who they seem these days. Especially among the oak-folk.’
'If there's something you want to say, just say it. I think we’ve had enough of mumbo-jumbo for the day.’
‘Don’t undermine metaphor, Saltus, it's a cunning little thing. Here's an example for you: there will be autumn, sooner or later, and many an acorn will fall. It may be very good for the roots though, especially if they’re weak, to have all those little noutritious heroes rotting on them. What a dignified compost!’
‘You may say what you like. We all may, if we don’t mind having our heads chopped off. Since I’m quite fond of my own and not in such high regard of yours, I’ll leave the talking to you.’
‘Man of deeds, not words? But they’re not two mutually exclusive things you know? Words and deeds. My lot may be a bit mouthy right now, maybe a distastefully so, but we barely ever speak of what we don’t think worth doing. Being not scared of talk is not always a sign of wisdom.’
‘But I’m scared, Cassius. Why wouldn’t I be? Aren't you?’
‘I’m good at spotting danger when it’s around, and I definitely prefer to maintain a polite distance from it. Scared? Concerned. And most of all about you. Fear is an emotion, and weren’t you always the more emotionally advanced one?’
‘If that means that I wasn’t a cold hearted schemer...’
‘I don’t know what it means, I never have,’ Cassius laughed bitterly, ‘But that’s what our mother used to say. To me. Often enough to plant it in my head...’
They looked at each other in quiet. Saltus loved their late mother but he was also aware of how unfair she had been to his brother. For a split second he thought whether they could join in a mutual understanding of it just like they had over Solvo's raving, but before he had time to say anything or even think of what to say, Cassius spoke first:
‘This is not revenge, Saltus. Not for me. But those who do seek revenge have a point.’
‘As do we.’
‘As do you. But I have chosen my side for my own reasons. You may not be aware of them, and they might seem unwise to you if you knew, but I’m not uncertain. I am where I am. Try to believe it is more than cold scheming that keeps me with your enemy.' He bowed to leave before adding: 'Be scared... if that means you'll stay alert.’
Saltus waited for his brother to enter the central building before approaching the bedraggled wooden door that he would still recognize anywhere, and knocked on it. There was no answer. He looked around to see if anybody was about and, being as sure as he could that nobody could see him, he pushed the rusty handle and pulled a wry face at the unwelcome squeaking of the hinges. As the door opened he stood motionless in the doorway for a good moment.
‘Now there’s an uncanny coincidence.’
‘Hello, Saltus.’ Tristan was sitting on a chair near the window, looking out of it. ‘I must look more into the customs of this place. As a former resident you might enlighten me: if you knock on somebody’s door and there’s no answer, you just enter the room, am I right?’ He finally looked at Saltus. ‘You always said I was too curious.’
‘Are you well?’ Saltus asked, but found himself surprised at how good Tristan looked.
‘Very well, trust your eyes. No hidden wounds, inside or out. You?’
‘No damage whatsoever, not recently.'
Tristan got up from the chair, went to a little table with a bowl of water on it and sprinkled his face.
'Tristan, what are you doing here?’
‘I was going to ask the same. Aren’t we both curious?’
‘There are other things you should be curious about.'
‘You tease me!’
‘Maya is missing.’
Tristan seemed disturbingly unaffected by the news.
‘Well. Everything is relative,’ he said, wiping his face and hands in a towel.
‘If someone is missing in one place, they’re not missed somewhere else.’
The uncomforatble feeling of Tristan gazing over his shoulder made Saltus turn around.
‘Tea?’ Maya was standing in the doorway and smiling.
‘I don’t think Saltus will be staying for tea. His ...mission... has suffered failure and he now needs to work on a new plan, he has no time to waste.’
Saltus could not make out if Tristan was mocking him or not, nor could he understand how his nephew knew of the outcome of his meeting with Solvo. This entire encounter was not exactly going the way he had planned it.
‘Jonas and Heather are missing too.'
Maya and Tristan exchanged concerned looks. One couldn't tell whether they were worried about their friends or anxious about what the other two might be up to.
'Don’t tell me they too have joined your little camp here.’
‘Saltus, my excessive curiosity is growing: what do you want?’
‘I will not state the obvious - that something has obviously changed...’
‘These are times of change. Everything changes, voluntarily or not.’
Saltus held on to these words with hope. Was there the unvoluntary side to this awkwardness? He smiled an encouraging smile which seemed to irritate Tristan even more.
‘What do you want?’
‘I’m not here on my own behalf. I have been asked to arrange for you to meet someone.’
‘Have you really not worked on a more convincing way to sell me on that?’
‘I don’t know much myself.’
Tristan laughed and looked out of the window.
‘They think you’re curious enough not to miss this oportunity.’
‘The three of them, although I’ve only spoken to one.’
‘Three... one of whom?’
‘Looks like I’ve got you almost as confused as you’ve got me. If you want to see them, you’ll know where to find me first,’ Saltus had given up his perplexed expression and was now speaking in full bold confidence. He cared for Tristan, but there was a line his nephew had crossed that didn’t allow him to carry on in the same fatherly way.
‘And how will I know that?’
‘Same way I found you. You hadn't exactly scattered pebbles to mark your trace. What is the one, perhaps, the only thing we still have in common?' One side of his face pulled a resentful smile. ‘Curiosity! Sorry I have to miss the tea, Maya. Good day to you both.’
As Saltus was about to turn out of the archway, he took one last look at the chamber door which was still open, and with the corner of his eye he thought he saw a cloak disappear behind it, of the same midnight blue that his brother Cassius had been wearing earlier.