"My life closed twice before its close;
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me,
So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell."
Joel Dagny looked around the Eberlein marketplace and tried to concentrate of figuring
out where he was in the city while ignoring the odor of a thousand frightened sheep who were being auctioned off that day. A year ago when he was last in Eberlein there had hardly been a human in the marketplace much less livestock. Certainly there had been no crowds to push one in a direction one did not wish to go.
He stopped beside a will and looked around hoping to see a street that looked familiar underneath the fresh coats of plaster and whitewash that had gone up after the war. No luck. There was no point in running about in the midday heat when he couldn't tell where he was going. Joel sat down on the edge of the well and kicked his heels against the stones. He took off his hat and fanned his face idly, whistling and waiting for the auctioneers jarring patter to quiet.
A short girl approached the well. Despite the heat, she was wrapped in a ragged navy blue cloak. Her hair was pulled back, haphazardly, falling over the right side of her face. She stopped on the opposite side of the well and drew out water with a battered tin cup on a cord. She tilted her head back to drink and Joel saw the right side of her face in the sunlight. Her skin curved over a delicate bone structure and was cut through by a mass of scars that stood out in stark relief from her wind burnt skin.
Joel closed his eyes. He had seen her once before; she had been one the floor of a makeshift hospital that had been set up in the Eberlein palace. She had to the same girl a doctor in a bloody shirt had instructed him to hold down while bits of sharp stone and metal were picked from her face. By that late hour of his first day, Joel already thought he had seen too much to be revolted by anything, but the girl's youth and her desperate cries for some unknown individual named Misha had renewed his desire to go outside and vomit.
When he reopened his eyes, the girl was methodically twining the cord back around the tin mug. She tucked it into her over-sized shirt and turned to learned. Joel stood quickly.
"Miss? Excuse me, Miss?"
She didn't turn around. Joel followed her. She pushed through the crowd and stopped beside one of the sheep pens leaning against the rough wooden railing. Joel approached her again. "Miss?"
If she heard him, she ignored him. The girl stared at a tall man standing several feet down the pen from her. Joel stood still and watched her. Could her hearing have been destroyed by whatever had sent shards of rock raining into her face? Anything was possible, considering that she had lived, that infection and blood loss hadn't killed her. Her feverish eyes, one swollen nearly shut and the other one wide with confusion and terror were his clearest memories of that first day.
The girl looked down and reached inside her cloak. Joel caught the gleam of light reflecting off metal before she dove, surprisingly quickly toward the tall man she had been watching. Joel stepped back to shocked to do anything except look on at the event. The tall man caught her arm and twisted her small body away from him. The girl landed on her feet and spun back around managing to deliver a long cut to the man's arms before two other men in the uniform of the palace guard had her pinned to the ground with a sword against her throat. A third guard moved to stand back to back with the tall man. "Are you all right, Master Armel."
When the name was spoken, Joel looked back at the tall man. Jays Armel was the president-elect of the newly created republic of Gacintar and the leader of the revolution who had overthrown the monarchy and then defended the country against the invading armies of Athal Feardorcha. Armel himself stared at the girl on the ground. His blond hair was tangled for the quick scuffle and his eyes, the pale green emphasized by the all the dossiers, were wide.
A particularly burly guard jerked the girl upright by the collar of the shirt. "What in hell are you doing, girl!"
"He killed them!" Her voice sliced through the marketplace and scattered the sheep to the far end of their pens. Although the words were different, the shriek the same piteous cry that Joel had heard the year before. The guard her across the jaw and watched the girl crumple to the ground at his feet. He raised his fist to hit her again, and without thinking, Joel stepped forward.
"Stop it. You don't have to beat her."
Before he had time to realize what he had done, one of the guards – fortunately not the big one – had a sword point at his throat, and Joel had his empty hands flung in the air.
"Enough." Armel's voice was surprisingly strong. "He's not a threat to me. Take the girl to a cell, but for the sake of the gods, he's right, you need not beat her." The sword was pulled away from Joel's throat and he let his hands fall to his sides. As the girl was half-lead, half-carried away, Armel walked over and stood in front of Joel. "So, friend, who are you?"
"Joel Dagny, sir. I'm from Sedar. I was here with the delegation, but I managed to get myself lost."
"Dagny, eh? I remember your name." He studied Joel, refusing to allow him to look away. "You know that girl?"
"Seen her afore today?"
"Only once. A year ago. I was here helping in the hospital that had been set up. She was among the wounded."
Armel nodded thoughtfully and then, much to Joel's surprise he smiled and extended his hand. Joel hesitantly slid his hand into Armel's firm grip. "Come along, Dagny, I'll see you make it to the palace this time."
"Sir, your arm."
"It's nothing." Armel looked away. "So, Mr. Dagny, it was simply out of kindness that you stopped those guards – admirable."
"Thank you, sir."
"What part of Sedar's delegation are you?"
"Oh, I'm an assistant to someone's assistant, or something like that." Joel backed easily into his well-practiced persona of a frivolous member of the Sedarian court. He and Abram had concocted a cover story for him that was only half fiction. Master Joel Dagny was the lazy, favored bastard son of the late king of Sedar. He was supposed employed as an assistant secretary to the Sedarian ambassador to Gacintar. Of course, his official assignment changed frequently as various ministers in the Sedarian bureaucracy became fed up with his absolute lack of a work ethic and general ineptitude. Somehow, however, Joel always managed to be assigned to the ambassador of the country Abram most wanted information on. Joel had found that members of the foreign courts, especially the younger members, rarely thought twice about the presence of a dandified youth, and would more often than not quickly befriend the dandy and spill their hearts over a few bottles of wine, perhaps along with the secrets of their fathers.
"Something like that?"
"To be honest, sir. I just sort of hang around."
"Ah." Armel nodded solemnly. "I see. You assisted last year with the hospital."
"Why were you here at that time?"
"Ah, you see. I'm supposed to a be a part of the military, but I'm rather hopeless as a soldier – even in Sedar's army. So I was told to stay at the hospital as an extra pair of hands."
"However it was that you helped, I thank you, Mr. Dagny. Many of my friends would have died if not for the hospital. And I well know that it took courage to remain in the hospitals."
Joel smiled. He bifurcated mind found itself in two places at once. Part was noting Armel's smooth charisma for future reference. The other bit was genuinely warming up to the tall man. His statements, although superbly diplomatic, were free of the veneer of artifice to which Joel was accustomed.
At the palace, Armel passed him off to a member of the staff who was to show him to rooms where the Sedarian delegation. Joel followed the liveried man down a hall. They were about to turn up a staircase when a young woman in the uniform of an officer of the guard stopped them.
"Excuse me, are you Joel Dagny?"
Joel looked her up and down. She was on the tall side for a woman. Dark brown hair that was pulled back into a ponytail that didn't help her severe face. Still she might have been pretty if she had smiled. "Yes."
"I am Captain Eileen Matred. Please come me."