Merin clanked through the hallways of the Kholinar palace, looking for Aredor. He found Renarin instead. The younger son was in Aredor’s sitting room, seated beside a table—a brushpen held in his hand.
“You’re writing!” Merin accused, aghast.
Renarin looked up with surprise, then relaxed when he saw it was only Merin. He held up his sheet of paper, which was scribbled with very simple glyphs—ones that even Merin recognized. “They’re just numbers,” Renarin defended. “Men are allowed to write numbers.”
“They are?” Merin asked uncertainly.
“Well . . .” Renarin hedged. “Merchants do it, though they usually use tallies. A lot have just started using the glyphs for convenience, though.”
“Yes, but why do you need to write them?” Merin asked, regarding the sheet of paper. He knew very little of mathematics, but some of the numbers appeared to be sequences of one sort or another. If there were any connections between the other sets of numbers, however, they were beyond him.
“I just like playing with numbers,” Renarin said in his sheepish way, accepting the paper back.
Merin shrugged. “Where is Aredor?”
“He’s meeting with someone,” Renarin said, nodding toward the heir’s audience chamber. “It’s a little early to be off to sparring practice.”
“We’re not going there yet,” Merin explained, setting aside his helmet, then reaching over to undo the clasp on his right gauntlet. “Your brother promised to arrange for someone to read to me from The Way of Kings today. I was going to go over to Faithhome to get a reading, but he said he’d arrange for a monk to come here and do it, so he could listen too.” Merin frowned as he spoke, pulling off the other gauntlet, then peering inside.
“What’s wrong?” Renarin asked.
“The gauntlet,” Merin complained, shaking it up and down for a moment, then peering inside. “There’s a rock or something stuck inside—it’s been bothering me all day.” He set the gauntlet aside with a sigh. “Here, will you help me with the breastplate?”
Renarin rose, helping him pull off the chest piece. Then the younger son picked up Merin’s gauntlet, putting it on and letting it size itself to him.
“You’re right,” Renarin said as Merin took off the rest of the armor. “There is something in here.” Renarin pulled off the gauntlet, picking at the inside.
Merin pulled off the last boot, then sat down with a sigh. He was so tired of the awkward metal that he was almost beginning to regret the day he had saved King Elhokar’s life. Vasher had him training in the Plate so often he felt like he wore the suit more often than he didn’t—he was surprised the monk hadn’t commanded him to sleep in it yet.
“There!” Renarin said, pulling something out of the gauntlet. “It was wedged underneath a layer of leather. Look.” He held up something very different from the rock Merin had been expecting—a small pendant, tipped with a disclike piece of carved stone.
“What is it?” Merin asked, reaching for the stone.
“Looks like jade,” Renarin said. “A glyphward.”
As soon as Merin touched the glyphward, the air in the room drew breath and came to life. Merin stood frozen for a moment, the source of the strange visions suddenly manifest. Just as before, he could see the air flowing through the room, sense its motions blowing in beneath the door, seeping out through the shuttered window, and even being drawn in and out by Renarin’s lungs.
Tentatively, he released the glyphward. The room returned to normal.
“I wonder how it got in there,” Renarin was saying with a musing voice. “Must have belonged to the man who tried to kill the king. A glyphward brought with him, tucked safely in the gauntlet, for protection in battle. Didn’t work very well, did it?”
Merin touched the glyphward again, tapping it as it hung from the string below Renarin’s fingers. As soon as his fingers brushed the glyph, the air became visible again.
“Merin?” Renarin asked, frowning. “What’s wrong?”
“Touch the glyphward,” Merin said. “Try it.”
Renarin shrugged, placing the glyph in his hand. “All right. What now?”
“You don’t . . . sense anything different?”
“No,” Renarin said. “Should I? It’s just a glyphward, Merin.”
It doesn’t work for him, Merin thought. But why? “What glyph is it?”
Merin regarded the carved character. “I’m not sure,” he admitted. “Looks like it’s a derivative of Nah.”
Nah—power. Merin withdrew his hand uncertainly. What kind of strange magic was this? Glyphwards were supposed to protect against the super-natural, not foster it. And why would it work only for Merin?
“Do you want it?” Renarin asked.
Merin paused. Did he? He reached into his sencoat’s side pocket, pulling out one of his mother’s sewn glyphwards—one he had carried with him through battles. It was stained and dirtied, and would look silly next to his fine clothing, but his experiences earlier had taught him to at least carry it with him. He opened it up. “Here,” he said, “drop it in this.”
Renarin frowned, but did as requested. Merin folded the cloth, locking the strange pendant within it, and tucked both in his pocket.
“And people say I’m strange,” Renarin mumbled, sitting down. “I—” He was cut off as the door to Aredor’s audience chamber opened and a man stepped out, followed by Aredor. Merin didn’t recognize the stranger, though he wore riding clothing—not lavish, but rich enough. Probably a minor nobleman, Nineteenth or Twentieth Lord. The breast of his cloak bore the glyph of House Kholin, but the glyph was twisted into an unfamiliar design.
Aredor stood for a moment, speaking to the newcomer.
“Who is he?” Merin whispered, leaning closer to Renarin.
“A very distant cousin,” Renarin whispered back. “From Crossguard—one of Parshen Jezenrosh’s couriers.”
“Jezenrosh?” Merin asked. “Isn’t he supposed to be dying or something?”
Renarin shook his head. “He left the war because of sickness, but he’s since recovered.”
Aredor gave the stranger a familial clasp on the shoulder, and the courier bowed his head, then turned and walked quickly from the room.
“What was that all about?” Merin asked as Aredor walked over to join them.
“Family business,” Aredor said offhandily. He eyed Merin’s Shardplate, sitting in a heap on the floor. “More wall-jumping?”
Merin shook his head. “Vasher wants me to lean how to jump up to my feet from a prone position without using my hands.”
“Wearing Shardplate?” Aredor asked with amusement. “That’s not possible.”
“Oh, it is,” Merin said. “I managed to do it a couple of times.”
“Out of how many tries?” Aredor asked skeptically.
“Five hundred or so,” Merin admitted.
Aredor chuckled, and Merin blushed. “It’s better than last week,” Merin said. “He had me jumping off the wall, landing on my feet, rolling to the ground, coming up, swinging twenty times, then jogging back up the stairs—all without stopping. Five repetitions nearly killed me.”
This time, Aredor laughed out loud. “Well,” he said, “if I ever get attacked by a wall, I’ll know who to send for. I assume you’re here for the Kings reading?”
“Good,” Aredor replied. “She should arrive any moment.”
Merin paused. “She? You said you were going to bring in a monk!”
“Oh, did I?” Aredor said innocently. “Completely forgot.”
Merin flushed, looking down at his outfit. He was dressed in a padded shennah undershirt and trousers, meant for use beneath armor. Both were stained with sweat from his day’s exertions.
“By the winds!” he swore. “Lend me something else to wear!”
Aredor laughed, nodding toward his bedroom chambers. Merin rushed inside, selecting an outfit as he heard the outer door open and a feminine voice speak. He hurriedly changed—Aredor was a tad taller than he, but the clothing fit without looking too bad. He quickly splashed some water on his face from the bin, sprinkled a bit of scented oil on his neck, then composed himself and rejoined the others.
Merin had to admit, this one was rather attractive. Thin-faced with dark Aleth hair, she was a model of noble femininity—reserved without being cold, immaculately dressed and composed. She rose when Merin entered, bowing respectfully.
Aredor winked his direction, and Merin resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Merin,” Aredor announced, “let me introduce the Lady Sankal, first daughter of Lord Chanaran Miendavnah. We are fortunate for this opportunity—Lady Sankal is known for her poetic voice.”
“It is an honor, my lady,” Merin said with a nod.
“For me as well,” the lady replied. “Please, be seated. You wished to hear from The Way of Kings? Which section?”
“The First,” Merin requested, seating himself beside Aredor on the couch. Lady Sankal waved to her companion—a younger girl, probably Sankal’s ward, who bore a very thick tome. Sankal seated herself as well, opening the book in her lap.
“Part One,” she read, “the Ideal Monarch. The Sovereign is not a tyrant, but a father. As the Almighty cares for his creations, so the Sovereign should love and care for his people. His is a holy position granted to him by birth from the Almighty. In the eternal eye of the Almighty, a Sovereign’s worth will be judged not by his acts of heroism, his great conquests, or his wealth. It will be determined by the love he earned from his people.”
Despite his annoyance with Aredor, Merin smiled. The reading was far better than the ones he had received from the monks. Lady Senkal spoke with a melodic cadence, converting Bajerden’s simple passages into a rhythmic near-ballad. Her voice was sweet and relaxing, and she never stumbled over words like the monks often did.
“She’s something, eh?” Aredor said quietly, nudging him. “You should trust me more.”
Merin raised an eyebrow. “I haven’t forgiven you yet,” he informed.
“Oh?” Aredor asked. “What are you going to do? Make me jump off the wall a couple of times?”
“No,” Merin replied. “But next time I’m up there, I’ll do my best to make certain I fall on you.”
Aredor chuckled to himself, leaning back and relaxing as he listened. Merin did likewise. Actually, he was rather pleased with the outcome, even if he was getting a little tired of The Way of Kings. He felt guilty admitting it, even to himself, but it was true. He knew the words were important—Kanaran society was founded on Bajerden’s philosophies. However, the writing was just so dry. Bajerden outlined his beliefs in a straightforward, but dull manner. Merin had been excited the first couple of times he had received a reading, but Dalenar had recommended that Merin hear from the book at least once a week—more often when he could manage it. Even with six sections to choose from, the readings were beginning to seem very repetitive.
“The great and magnificent duty of the Sovereign is the safety of his people. Without them, he is nothing. As they provide for his sustenance, he must provide for their livelihoods. The second duty of the Sovereign is the wealth of his people. He is a waged servant, and if his people do not prosper more because of his presence, then he has failed them.”
The book made more sense to him now that he understood that Bajerden’s word ‘Sovereign’ didn’t just refer to the king, but to anyone of noble blood. The first and fourth sections were the ones Merin found most interesting—the first because it reminded him of the heroes of the past, and the fourth because it mentioned Protocol and swordplay. However, even the best sections were a little dry.
Merin forced himself to continue listening to readings, however. Dalenar was right—how could he perform his duty if he didn’t understand what that duty was? There was no better place to hear about the obligations of his station than through The Way of Kings.
The truth was, however, he would much rather have been hearing from one of the great ballads. He had accidentally made the discovery—after a The Way of Kings reading, Merin had heard a monk reading from The Fall of Kanar in a nearby room. He had gone to investigate and had listened ravenously. It wasn’t until that moment that he had realized the treasure at his disposal—there were hundreds of great epics to be heard, everything from The Betrayal of Inavah to The Chronicles of the Returns. Back in Stonemount, he had only been able to hear the songs known by townsfolk or passing minstrels, but now—as a Lord—he could demand any of them on a whim. It had become his habit to request a reading from one of them after hearing a section out of The Way of Kings.
Unfortunately, he wouldn’t be able to sneak in any ballad-reading this day. Lady Senkal marched onward through her recitation, reading about the rules by which a Sovereign should decide whether or not to go to war.
“She’s not married, you know,” Aredor whispered about three-quarters of the way through the reading.
Merin rolled his eyes. “Why is it you insist on trying to marry me off?” he hissed. “You’re five years older than me, and you haven’t seen fit to woo a bride yet—in fact, everything I hear claims you enjoy keeping the women guessing.”
“I’m horribly misrepresented,” Aredor said. “It’s a conspiracy among the mothers. None of them want me as a son-in-law.”
Merin shot his friend a suffering look. Aredor was one of the most sought-after matches in Alethkar. It was commonly expected that he would be chosen as Parshen after his father died—either way, he would inherit Kholinar, one of the most powerful cities in the kingdom. Any mother would be eager to choose him for her daughter if she thought he would agree to the match.
Aredor nodded toward Senkal. “Her father is lord of Basinrock,” he noted. “A sixth city.”
“And?” Merin asked. That made her a Sixteenth Lady.
“And,” Aredor said meaningfully, “she has no brothers.”
No brothers? Merin thought with surprise, turning to regard the woman again. She continued her reading despite the whispers—apparently, it was expected that the men would get distracted every once in a while. She looked up as she spoke, shooting him a glance and a smile, then looked down at the book.
“That means her husband will inherit the city,” Aredor explained quietly.
“I’m not dense, Aredor,” Merin replied.
“Basinrock is only a sixth city,” Aredor continued. “But that’s very respectable, all things considered. It’s a tribute city to Kholinar right now, but its emerald mines are productive enough that my father has considered granting it full independence. If its lord were a relative, Father could easily be persuaded to make the change. Her father is very eager to see that happen.”
“Eager enough to marry his daughter to a former peasant?” Merin asked with a frown.
“Don’t be so quick to judge them, Merin,” Aredor said. “Not every nobleman is like Meridas or the king. Some of us see a lorded citizen as the most honorable kind of nobleman. Listen to what Bajerden says—his entire social system is based around the idea of rewarding those who serve well. The best leaders are to be elevated, and those who deserve nobility will find it. In a way, your existence legitimizes all of us.”
Merin sat back thoughtfully, remaining quiet until the end of the recitation. Once it was finished, Lady Senkal modestly withdrew—it would be unseemly for her to tarry too long with men she had barely met. As she left, however, she mentioned that she would be visiting Kholinar for a period of two weeks, and that she would be pleased to return and read to them from the other sections.
“I think she likes you,” Aredor said after the door closed.
“That’s because she couldn’t smell me,” Merin said with a frown. “Next time, warn me when you’re going to do something like that.”
Aredor snorted. “Last time I did, you found an excuse to run away and hide. Pick up your sword—it’s time for training.”
The opal in Merin’s Shardblade had darkened steadily over the weeks. Merin examined the gemstone closely as he walked, peering into its greying depths. It had been about two months since the final Pralir battle—nearly eighty days. He was getting so close . . . just a few more weeks, and the Blade would be his completely. He would be able to dismiss it and recall it, and all shadows of its former owner would be gone.
As it was, the only remnant of the dead man was a faint outline of the glyphs running up the length of the blade. Over the weeks, the weapon had lengthened by half a foot, growing to Merin’s needs. The gemstonelike indentations on the blade had melted away, instead being replaced by shifting waves that looked something like water. Merin wasn’t certain why the design was appearing—he’d only seen the ocean once, when they had passed near its tip while marching to Prallah. Yet he was told that the Blade would know his soul better than he did, and that its ornamentations would reflect him.
The blade had begun to curve slightly, losing its straightness. That, at least, he understood. The fighting style Vasher was teaching him relied heavily on broad swings and slashes, and had very little focus on thrusts. The weapon was growing to fit his training. The hilt had grown as well, perfect for the two-handed blows he often delivered, and the crossguard was curving delicately, the ends growing into points.
“You know,” Aredor noted, “staring at it won’t make it bond any faster.”
Merin lowered the weapon. “I’m just worried—the Dueling competition is only a few days away. I guess I won’t have the weapon bonded in time.”
“You can still participate,” Aredor said. “You’ll just have to fight with the sheath on so you don’t accidentally hurt anyone.”
“That will make it awkward to fight,” Merin said. “Assuming I even get to participate.”
“You haven’t asked him yet?” Aredor asked.
Merin shook his head. “I’m going to do it today.”
“He’s got to let you,” Aredor said confidently. “I mean, why is he training you, if not teach you how to duel? This is a perfect opportunity to test your skills.”
Merin wasn’t so certain. Vasher still forbade Merin from dueling with anyone besides himself and a couple of his fellow monks. Merin bid Aredor farewell as they entered the monastery, making his way toward Vasher’s customary corner of the courtyard.
Vasher nodded to him as he approached. “Today we spar again,” he said simply, tossing Merin a practice sword.
Merin caught the sword and fell into his stance. A few moments later, they were trading blows on the sandy ground. Merin liked to think he was getting better. After all, Vasher had finally consented to begin teaching him how to spar, rather than just making him practice swings and stances.
Of course, Merin had yet to even score a hit on the older man. He tried hard as they practiced—waiting for that one chance, that one opening, when he would finally show his teacher his improvement. It had yet to come.
Merin held up a hand forestallingly as the latest exchange ended. Vasher waited patiently as Merin stretched his arms, then fell back into a dueling stance. The stance was the sign, and the elder monk advanced again, kicking up sand as he approached. Merin held his weapon forward, watching carefully for the first strike, parrying it as it came. According to Vasher, most fights were won on the turn of one or two blows. However, before those blows came, there was often testing—a few tentative exchanges, meant to distract one’s opponent, or perhaps judge his strength.
The end came in a flash. Merin parried as he had been trained, on the defensive, trying to block or dodge all of the strikes. As usual, he wasn’t left with any opportunities to attack—Vasher struck so quickly, his attacks came so rapidly, that it was all Merin could do to keep himself from being hit.
This time, he blocked most of them. One blow, however, slipped through, striking him on the side of the leg. Merin grunted in pain, losing his rhythm as Vasher pressed forward, bowling over him and knocking him to the ground.
Merin sighed, resting back in the sand, staring up into the darkening sky. It was completely free of clouds—during spring and fall the sky was often cloudy, even when no highstorm was approaching. During the summer, however, even a hint of rainfall was too much to expect.
“You keep leaving your left side open,” Vasher said. “You’re not a spearman anymore—you don’t have a shield to protect you.”
“I trained with a spear and shield for two years,” Merin replied. “I can’t expect to overcome my reflexes in two months.”
“Excuses are fine until they kill you,” Vasher said. “Come on—we haven’t been at it that long.”
Merin sighed, sitting up. As he did so, he felt an unfamiliar lump in his pocket. He frowned, reaching down reflexively before remembering the glyphward he and Renarin had discovered. He glanced up at Vasher, then hesitated.
It can’t be evil, Merin told himself. It’s a glyphward. However, he was still uncertain.
Use any advantage you have. . . . Vasher’s words from before returned to him.
Merin reached in his pocket as he stood, quickly unwrapping the glyphward. He brought out the ward with a hasty motion, slipping it around his neck and tucking it beneath his shirt. The air became perceptible around him, driven by a cool breeze coursing through the valley. He could see it, stronger up above, blowing over the wall and dropping in upon them.
“Stance,” Vasher ordered.
Merin did as commanded. What kind of advantage did he expect to receive from the glyphward? Being able to see the wind wasn’t exactly a strong martial benefit.
Vasher approached, sword held before him in a familiar, careful grip. He was cautious, discerning, perfect. He gave no clue as to his thoughts. Except . . .
Vasher took a sharp breath. Merin saw it—saw the air get sucked through Vasher’s nose, then suddenly stopp. The monk was holding his breath.
Merin struck even as Vasher raised his blade to attack. Merin moved in quickly, beneath the man’s guard. Vasher’s eyes flashed with surprise, but it was too late. Merin’s weapon struck Vasher on the side of the chest, causing a grunt of pain and throwing dust from the monk’s clothing.
The monk stumbled back, lowering his weapon.
“Ha!” Merin said. “Finally!”
Vasher rubbed his side, eyes thinning. “You’re getting too accustomed to my style,” he informed. “Fight the same man too long, and even a novice will learn to anticipate his moves. Let’s get a drink.”
Merin continued to smile, tempted to mention Vasher’s own lecture on ‘excuses.’ However, now was not the time to agitate the aging monk. As they approached the water barrel, Merin carefully broached a new subject.
“The dueling competition is in four days,” he said.
“So?” Vasher asked.
Merin shrugged. “I thought I might participate.”
“Not if you want to keep learning from me, you won’t,” Vasher informed.
Merin groaned, dropping his ladle into the water. “Why, Vasher? Don’t you understand the opportunity I’ll be passing up?”
“You already have a Blade,” Vasher said. “The competition means nothing to you.”
“It means everything,” Merin said. How could he explain? “You’re a monk, Vasher—you don’t understand these things. I need to participate, show the others that I can be one of them. They still think of me as Lord Dalenar’s ‘pet peasant.’ I need to prove myself.”
“You’re young,” Vasher said, taking a drink. “There will be plenty of time for you to ‘prove yourself.’ Afterward, there will be plenty of time to regret doing so.”
Merin sighed, leaning against the barrel with a frustrated glare.
“I understand more than you think, Merin,” Vasher said. “I haven’t always been a monk.”
Merin nodded disconsolately. Eventually he looked up, studying the grizzled monk. “Vasher, I’ve spoken to the others. You’ve never taken a student—not even a peasant. None of the monks you spar with have taken students either. What made you decide to train me?”
Vasher replaced the ladle, then fished out the one Merin had dropped. “I know something of what it is like to be a reject,” he said. “I understand what it is to leave one life and begin another.”
Merin frowned at the cryptic answer. Vasher just turned back toward their practice swords. “No duels, Merin,” he repeated. “Come on. You’ve training to do.”