THE traditions of the Kalliopolis had been inescapably engrained in him, to an extent he realized only now as the bells of the temple rang, and he rose and went to the evening service. Ariston didn’t even believe in the gods anymore, and in this, at least, he was no worse than most of the residents of the Kalliopolis, who felt only that they should behave as if they still believed. The rurals in this village amid the Barrens had true faith.
He had begun to realize how difficult it would be, finding a place. In the Kalliopolis, they looked down on him as a fallen Guardian, useless scrap. And here in this outlands village, where he had hoped for freedom—not much of it, not until he passed beyond the borders of the Kalliopolis’s lands, but at least a first breath of it—he found he scorned the inhabitants for their naïveté.
Even his hope of leaving at the end of the service was shattered, as all brittle things must be. The storm had moved in, blowing dust too thick to walk through for even the short distance to the inn down the street. He sat in the pews with the rest of them, hearing fine sand rasp against the bare boards of the walls and the windows’ thick stained glass.
Someone went around lighting candles. It was by their dusty glow that Ariston first saw him, kneeling across the room, the sand-choked window behind him like a dull emerald halo. He knelt and his hands were folded as humbly as any peasant’s, but Ariston knew the boy was also from the Kalliopolis. He dressed too finely, and the soft tunic covered a body slender without being athletic—not a farmer’s body. His head was bowed, soft yellow hair falling across a pale face.
Sent after him? He didn’t believe so. If anyone cared enough about Ariston to send after him, they’d pick more strength than was in this humble youth. Humble or reverent—or perhaps frightened. His vulnerability, his youth, and his beauty stirred something in Ariston, protectiveness or lust. Both feelings were familiar, almost old friends, but all the same he turned away, lowering his eyes. This wasn’t the time for it.
A sound carried through the snarl of blowing sand, low and distant and strange enough to make Ariston tense, glad of the sword he still kept at his side. A Guardian’s sword, so sharp the edges were clear as water—an old Guardian’s sword. The new ones put more power in their blades, less craftsmanship.
And at that thought, he recognized the sound: the heavy tread of a mounted Guardian. A true one, the new kind. No wonder Ariston felt tense—and no wonder the youth across the aisle was shaking like a paper flag. The peasants in the hall began to murmur as the steps grew louder, closer. Even through the storm, Ariston heard their metallic echoes.
A knock came at the door, hammering like the house-sized steel hooves of the Horse of Illya. The boy looked as if the blows had landed on his shoulders. And then the voice came, like a trumpet’s call:
“I’ve come seeking Phaleas Peneste.”
The murmuring peasants fell silent, their nervous looks turned reverent. So they recognized the voices of the new Guardians. Their eyes went to Ariston, then the youth—Phaleas—and back. They were the only strangers. And the Guardians, the new ones at least, did not make mistakes.
Phaleas unfolded his hands slowly, almost reluctantly. In that motion, Ariston saw the youth’s entire history—his reverence a holdover from a childhood in a town like this, his urbane grace the signature of years spent in service in the Kalliopolis, his fear the mark of a runaway. Like Ariston, he’d tried to escape. Unlike Ariston, somebody cared enough to bring him back.
“Phaleas Peneste,” the trumpet sounded. “The squire.”
As he rose, his hands clasped each other again. Slender, strong, skillful mechanic’s hands for all his youth. He couldn’t have served the Guardians for more than a few years—even the longest service could only have lasted the ten years since they were created. He must have been in the Citadel for far less than that. Surely the fear would have bled away with familiarity.
Ariston bowed his head as Phaleas opened the door, shielding his face with a fall of dark bronze hair, far longer than a Guardian’s should ever have been. Strands blew in his eyes in the same wind that sent sand scraping over the floorboards and brought shivers washing over the congregation like waves. He glanced up and saw all he needed to: the Guardian, like an iron statue of a man, though a moving statue, bending head and shoulders that towered over Phaleas—who was hardly diminutive—the face’s molded features as austere and beautiful as the youth’s, if colder. A cloak of aristocratic violet billowed around him like wings, except where it was held down by the great sword strapped between his shoulders. The blade was large enough to carve a man in half and then serve as his funeral bier.
Looking down again, Ariston heard Phaleas murmur something the wind snatched away. The Guardian didn’t deign to reply, if he heard. The thunderous footsteps moved back, clearing the door, and Ariston had to see, had to watch Phaleas walk out into the storm. The end of his escape, barely a day’s journey from the city, before he’d even passed the nebulous, dust-swept borders of the Kalliopolis’s reach.
The end of Ariston’s escape too.
Already the peasants’ eyes were turning toward him. Accusing. Nervous. What did he have to do with this, they were wondering. It couldn’t be coincidence, three men—three beings—from the Kalliopolis coming here on the same night. And perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps it was a sign from the gods that nobody with any mind believed in.
The Guardian might not have called Ariston into the storm, but he would bring him back just the same. He had taken away the strength to continue running—but why give the metal bastard all the credit? So had the peasants with their staring, unwelcoming eyes. So had the empty service and its ringing bells. So had Phaleas, with his mechanic’s fingers intertwined in prayer, his beautiful face molded by dread.
Perhaps Ariston had never had the strength in the first place.
Before the door closed, he saw the Guardian hold his violet cloak around Phaleas, as if shielding him from the storm.
INSIDE, Phaleas sometimes thought of himself by a rural nickname: Fal. It was the only part of him that remained a farmer’s son. The rest had been burned away, like the coal or rockblood in Eudaimon’s furnace, whose heat he could feel through the Guardian’s cloak. Almost too much heat; Eudaimon had driven himself severely, coming after Phaleas.
Now he drove them both severely, coming home.
Eudaimon was mounted, having connected the terminal gears of his torso system to a hippus, the four-legged machine that could travel faster than any Guardian and far faster than a man. But both constructs moved more reluctantly than they should. Fal was certain sand and dust had gotten into their joints, and perhaps the cogs and pipes of their inner workings as well. He’d have to inspect them once they were home.
So easily he became a squire again.
Sand rasped at his cheeks and eyelids, the backs of his hands, his ears. Half its fury came from the speed of their passage; they were outpacing the storm. That, at least, he could escape. With Eudaimon’s help. He just couldn’t escape Eudaimon.
The furnace’s heat seared through the cloth of the cloak and Fal’s own tunic. He had only felt it this hot once before—and perhaps then his perceptions had been confused. He had been naked, or near enough to it, clothed only in rags—a peasant’s orphan of barely eight years struggling along a roadside deep in the winter. Freezing. Dying. Eudaimon had found him, taken him up and held him in a tent made of his cloak, his furnace’s heat thawing the boy, returning him to life. As, ten years later, Eudaimon returned a disobedient squire to the Kalliopolis.
He hadn’t asked why Fal fled. Perhaps he didn’t care.
They were out of the storm before sunset. Then it was a long ride across the Barrens, bare dust except for where strands of shattered rock thrust their shadows east, back to the storm and the village now far beyond it. From the corners of his eyes, Fal thought he could see things. Roofs, trees. Perhaps sometimes he really did, spotting the rare village living as well as it could in this stretch of ruined land. Perhaps he saw, as superstition said, the ghosts of things from before the Destruction, the time when the Kalliopolis was born. Once, nearby, he saw a four-footed figure perched on a broad stone, an animal’s body that watched them with dark, human eyes.
Then, in the distance, something he knew was real: the white pillars and broad bronze domes of the Kalliopolis. Home. A slaves’ barracks. He swallowed his bitterness, knowing what his teacher Glaucon would say if he heard such things: You haven’t learned to be so sour here.
But he couldn’t stop thinking that if he’d only pressed on through the storm, Eudaimon would not have found him. Not so soon, at least. He might have had another day of freedom; even that would be enough. If only he had braved the storm. But Fal wasn’t brave; he was a prisoner of fear as much as he was a slave of the Guardians.
He pressed his face to Eudaimon’s cloak and breathed in a smell like coal and oil and steel. Once he had done this and felt safe. Now he only tried to block out the acrid taste of dread, and to avoid seeing the approaching Kalliopolis.