The pain was still so raw that he could barely talk. His wounds had long healed during his stay with the Rochat, but the pain remained. He had lost the other half of himself, and he would never recover from that. He croaked words out to the man behind the counter.
“I need a guide South.” The harshness of Michael’s own voice no longer bothered him, but the other man started back slightly.
“Nobody goes South, mister.”
“Somebody will,” Michael answered, and turned to go to the next caravan station, leaving the man behind him blinking in confusion at the abrupt exchange.
“Wait, mister! Not so fast, young’un, hold on, hold on!” Michael paused at the curtained doorway and half-turned back into the dim room. The searing desert sun behind him made the face within the hood of his cloak a mystery. He said nothing, waiting for the other man to continue.
“Now, young man, I can see you’re in a hurry but forgive an old caravan master his old bargaining habits. Sit, sit!” He waved a beringed finger at a low stool near a cozy table in the corner, which had been set with tea and biscuits. Michael remained standing, his hidden eyes assessing the robed figure before him.
“I do not have the time for bargaining.”
A wide, white smile greeted this assertion, and the smaller man bowed . “Then, good sir, you pick an awful time to visit G’Shak-a. The sun is highest and all shops will close now until dusk. There will not be a soul upon the streets except for takh’ti,” he used the Rochati word for those whose wits had left them. Michael had heard it aimed at himself recently and grimaced with cheerless humor inside the protective gloom of his hood. He took a slow deep breath, remembering the lessons he had learned on his journey, and forced himself to take a moment of rest. He glided like a shadow to the table and sat on the offered stool, making no more noise than a breeze in the night.
“I am Caravan Master Hohkan, sir, at your service. Please, accept my hospitality and we may speak of the Great South.” He began the elaborate preparation of tea while Michael reluctantly removed his dusty black gloves, laying them on the table next to the steaming cup which was placed in front of him. He tried not to look at the band of black which encircled the middle finger of his right hand. It was the physical manifestation of his loss, his failure.
“I am called Nainan Bakhmalshi,” Michael answered the man’s unspoken question with the Rochati name he had taken while wandering the desert. It meant ‘Sorrow’s Brother’. He then pushed the hood of his cloak away from his face. His skin had darkened with his months in the desert, but was still quite pale in the places the sun had not struck. His hair had grown long and hung like black snakes to his shoulders; one streak of white, he knew, rested in the center of his forehead and curled like a feather to disappear amidst the darkness. He kept his striking golden eyes fixed on the repast in front of them, though he knew it did not hide their uniqueness.
“That is a sad name, sir. Let us rest and speak.” The older man held a plate of savory biscuits towards his guest and Michael took one hesitantly. It was still hard for him to consent to be a guest anywhere outside his Rochat family, after having been through his ordeal in the far northern Varani lands. The very thought of that race of villains caused the pit of his stomach to go cold with fear and his head to grow hot with rage. He struggled to control what used to be so easy to keep in check; he had long been able to ignore the dark blood in his veins but they had awoken an inner nature he could no longer deny. He mentally wrestled and shoved the feelings back into their iron room deep within his psyche, slamming the huge bar across doors he had built as a last defense against the shadows. As the phantom clanging of metal echoed around his skull, he realized Hohkan had been speaking while he battled inner demons.
“… of course the exotics of the South intrigue and enthrall anyone who has seen them, smelled them, been privileged enough to hold them, but the journey is so dangerous now that nobody will send a caravan that way anymore. The trade is much in demand, but too many do not come back! Tell me, good sir, is it treasure you seek? There are easier prizes to be won, and if it is adventure, why I can send you with caravans full of …”
Michael cut him off. “Master Hohkan,” his rough voice rattled the delicate teacup in its saucer. “Pardon my interruption. I can assure you I have discovered treasure enough in my travels, and more adventure than anyone wants.” The weariness in his voice was palpable in the dim, sweet smelling room. “I will not be turned from my purpose, and that purpose is to go South. If no caravans go there, then I will go alone.” Somehow the solidity of his fatigue turned to emptiness on the last word, which floated across to his host like the vapor rising from their tea.
Hohkan was silent for a moment, gazing across at the man who looked younger than himself but spoke with so timeworn an air. Michael felt the gaze but did not raise his eyes to meet it, instead nibbling at the biscuit, which was rich with butter and herbs and went so well with the spicy, sweet tea that he lifted to his mouth.
“I see why they call you Sorrow.” The older man’s voice was quiet and full of something Michael didn’t care to interpret. “Please do not take offense; there are so many young men who come through because they hear of wonders and adventures beyond measure, and those who seek such things rarely find anything but death and disappointment. I think … if I may be so bold, that perhaps you have already found these things.”
Michael was silent. He had only just contained his torments and had no wish to awaken them again. Hohkan munched silently along with his companion for a while, then took a deep breath as if coming to a decision.
“Only Kailee the Mad is fool enough to explore the South Lands since the caravans stopped. We do not deal with her except to buy the oddities she brings back. She has been gone for two months now; it may be more than a week before she is here again.”
The inward groan that Michael stifled shook his entire body. Another delay! Goddess curse this blasted southland with its slow pace and weather too hot to walk in! Curse the endless exercises he had endured to get his mind back into some kind of order after the Varaine had twisted it up to the point of insanity. He had to hurry, felt compelled to get to his destination as fast as possible. The small black doubt that lived behind his brain whispered that it could already be far too late…
He realized that his breath had become swift and shallow, making a noise almost louder than the bits of biscuit that dropped from the hand that had crushed it into crumbs. He forced himself to breathe slower and more deeply, setting his jaw and concentrating on the physical feeling of the air going in and out of his body. He rolled the little crumbs around in his fingers for a moment, focusing on their rough-smooth feel against his dry skin. He gained control once more, and looked around for a way to clean up the mess he had made. His gaze met that of his host.
Hohkan’s eyes widened, and Michael knew that it was his own strange eyes – the bright color of a gold coin and with pupils almost like those of a cat – that caused a reaction in the other man. The caravan master raised his hand reassuringly and nodded his head.
“Young man, I will not pry into your past, nor delay your future. This Kailee has a reputation for turning up in the least likely of places at some of the most opportune of times. If your paths are to cross, I feel you will not have long to wait. Come, we will finish our meal and take our mid-day rest. You are welcome to a hammock in my back room, and if it is needful you will come to supper as well.”
The Brother of Sorrow nodded, dropped his remarkable eyes to the table, and took another biscuit.