Weiss worked his nails around the edge of his scab. It was dawn. He wished he could pull out the knife that seemed wedged in his head. He wished the sun would stay down. Pity the drunkard shepherds who do this every week! Although, Weiss had to grant, they likely didn’t antagonize people into throwing them at walls every week; that part was his own peculiar suffering.
Weiss found a convenient rock and sat for a while. The marshlands were stretched out all around him; mists rose off them in grey tendrils as the sun shed its white rays quietly over the horizon. Somewhere ahead, the Thron camp. The end of the grey. The end of hell?
At the mercy of his headache and feeling a burning thirst, Weiss felt pitiable. The glory of last night had dissipated into marsh-mist, and he was a cornered animal. Weiss knew every dissenting in the city, and they were all grey, brown, weighted and waiting for the end of the world to be better this year. He had to force himself to stand and keep walking.
The reeds here towered above a man’s head, with dark tangled trees dotted here and there like sentinels. It was no easy task, passing through the marsh. After a time, Weiss tried to laugh at his own pitiable misery, but the laugh was stillborn; he tried in vain to animate its dark limbs. He found himself weeping instead.
“Sir,” said a voice, dancing across the notes of a song Weiss did not know, “Why do you weep?”
Weiss’s head snapped up and he stared at the woman who had spoken—a Thron; there was no doubt about it. She met his eyes with black eyes at once peaceful and vigorous. Her dress was more tied around her than sewn to fit her, just swathes of crimson fabric gathered into a knot at one shoulder. The dark skin of her arm was tattooed with a darker bond-harp, and she had a ring of gold in her nose. Aldous wore pale grey, undissenting, and this woman carried herself like Aldous, like someone who knew they had nothing to fear from the Geridspolice, and yet she could be killed simply for talking to Weiss. His heart clutched at her like a drowning man.
“Are we not all this miserable?” he demanded desperately. “Are there any who do not both long to die and dread it?”
Somehow, he found himself at her fire. Mare, her name was. She warmed broth and gave it to him, watching him carefully. Her movements were kindly, almost motherly, though she could not be much more than his own age.
“Why not die,” she said softly, “if life is so filled with misery?” The question seemed dizzyingly unfair. Weiss had known more than his share of dissenting who had tried that route, even one or two that had committed ritual suicides in the pathway of the Queen as she made tours of the city, but none of them had ever looked as if they had found peace and vigour for it. All of them had died hauling their souls in shades of grey and brown with them, something heavy and pitted like corroded iron that could not be shaken in life or in death. All of them had been buried or burned with their Deedsweight still cruelly bound across their shoulders, heavy and dense as iron. Bound on them at birth and supplemented every day with new Deeds. Weiss felt his own Deedsweight sternly lashed to his back with unbreakable cords across his chest and his shoulders, and he looked beseechingly at Mare. What passed through his mind was more than he knew how to say with someone there listening, but her eyes seemed to understand.
“I have never seen,” said Weiss, and his voice was like a child crying because they have missed a fair. “I have never seen!”
She waited patiently as he keened and rocked himself. At last he controlled himself and said,
“How can I go into the blackness of death, knowing I carry with me only the knell of my own Deedsweight? There will only be darkness beyond, darkness and pain for me.”
She pressed her lips together, and said,
“It is death to me to say it in this country, but you speak true, man of Aiken. The living in Aiken crumple under their Deedsweights and in dying they are only crushed still further, dragged away from the sight of Elionae our Maker and Judge.”
It was a name one heard, sometimes, in Aiken: a curse, a ward, an idea for philosophers to bandy back and forth, but the way Mare said it was different. Arrow-straight. Weiss found himself leaning into the promise of her words.
“If this is your position, Weiss,” she said, “they why do you stand still?”
He looked up at her in wonder. He knew all the dissenting in Aiken, how many had discussed with him defiance, self-immolation, luxury, all the creeds. And she asked him, straight as arrows, why did he stand still? He lifted his head, moss brushed from a very old stone steps.
“Where shall I go?” he said.
“Do you know why Throns are camped here, in defiance of your police?” asked Mare. Weiss shook his head. He was a boy of eight watching a mumming, eyes wide, breath caught, waiting for the story to resolve. “There is death coming to this city. We must warn all that we can, to flee before it breaks: fire, shaking of the earth, splitting of the stones.”
“Why bother with them?” said Weiss, feeling ashamed as a boy of eight as soon as he said it.
“Man of Aiken,” she said solemnly, “we were once as them. We were once as you.” Weiss bowed his head, and the sun bent on it and his head hurt a little less. “There is escape. Do you see,” she turned to the east and pointed to the dim shapes of the mountains there, “the pass between the mountains?” Weiss strained but could not see it. The grey shapes slumped against each other and the haze of water shimmered over the marsh.
“I believe that it is there,” he said simply.
She laughed at that, like a child clapping its hands over a bauble, a mirror held up to her motherly face. She was both old and young, solemn and lighthearted.
“It is there,” she said. “And beyond it—many things. Places of fear, some of them, places of enmity, but also places of peace, and places of light and colour. And Jesh’s Land, where exists the one sword in the land strong enough to cut through that cord that binds you.”
Weiss scoffed, and then felt ashamed again.
“I beg your pardon,” he said. “But nothing cut the cords of a Deedsweight. I have never heard of anything that can break it.”
Mare had a strange look in her eyes, sad, and luminous, and glad, and full of longing, and she angled her shoulders so he could see her back. Weiss caught his breath and half reached out to touch her, and then drew his hand back, wondering. Above the crimson folds of her dress, scars criss-crossed her shoulder blades, the worn grooves that he could imagine laced his own back under where the Deedsweight had clung all his life. But on Mare’s back, there were only the scars. No close, cruel weight, nor dark red cords, but just her skin, free, unbound. Unbound! Weiss wept again, and she wept with him, and perhaps neither of them could untangle the threads of sorrow and joy they felt.
Mare’s eyes were shining with salt and light as she spread out a map between them, and she spoke like a woman naming her lover when she said, “Let me show you the way to Elionae’s City—by the King’s Highway through Jesh’s Land.”
In the courtyard of her uncle’s home, Aldous paced, venomous, terrified.
“Come home, Weiss, come home! You’ll not bring scandal and shame on me; I’ll not let you get yourself cast out of this house like the riff-raff you are.”
But it was nearly eighth bell, the sign high in the sky, and no sign of him. Aldous pulled a grey cloak over her grey dress and made her way venomous and terrified across the grey stone streets of Aiken. She knew where to begin hunting.