A huge thank you to my beta readers for helping me make this story the best possible version of itself, and a huge thank you to my reviewers for your stunning praise. I mean ... wow. I'm really floored. Thank you.
Dust to Dust
It was a perfect mid-summer day. You know the type. I was on my back, sprawled out on a blanket in the shade of the old waystone that had watched over the bridge to the University since before anybody could remember. My eyes were closed, bare feet buried in the tall grass. In my palm I held a dark river stone, heavy and smooth.
Fela sat at the edge of the blanket, hands held out to keep her dress clean while she kneaded a ball of red river clay between her palms to soften it for sculpting. Although she seemed preoccupied, her eyes flicked towards me every now and then - an unwanted reminder that she was there as my instructor, not as my friend. Elodin stood on my other side, barefoot and shirtless, eyes brimming over with tears of passion as he recited a sonnet to the waystone in a lustful bellow. This was only his most recent attempt to interact with the great stone relic, each more irritating than the last.
Fela had named stone twice that afternoon and had created two stone rings, one brown and one green. Thus far, all that I had managed was a mild headache and a single daisy chain necklace, now wilted in the summer heat. Needless to say, I was in a foul mood in spite of the weather. I briefly entertained the notion of throwing up my hands and heading back across the river; if I hurried, I could grab my lute from Anker's and get to the rooftop overlooking Applecourt just in time to have dinner with Auri. But instead I sighed and shifted and gritted my teeth and tried to focus on the stone in my hands rather than Elodin's ear-splitting efforts to compose a poem that rhymed "metamorphic" with "orphic" thirteen times in three stanzas.
At great length, I managed to nudge my mind into the dream-like reverie of Spinning Leaf. I spent the better part of the next hour running my fingers along the stone or staring at it slantwise, willing myself to see it as something other than a fist-sized chunk of rock too common for sale and too dull for words.
I transitioned from Spinning Leaf into the dispassionate calm of the Heart of Stone.
I hammered at the stone with the colossal force of my Alar.
I ignored it in the hope that its name would simply occur to me if I stopped trying so hard. I bargained with it, silently promising to wash it in cool river water if it surrendered its secrets. I railed against it with the ruthless exuberance I usually reserved for pawnbrokers and the firstborn sons of Vintish barons, spitting off a string of silent curses nasty enough to turn a Waterside whore's head.
"I think he fell asleep."
I cracked an eye open and shot Fela the better half of a withering stare. Her hand flew to her mouth. "Oh! Sorry."
Elodin finished the opening steps of a Modegan court dance, then waited to see if the waystone would return his invitation. When it did not, he shrugged and turned to Fela. "I told you Kvothe would be shit at naming stone. He's too impatient."
I shot up onto my elbows. "I am not," I said hotly. "And you're one to talk. I might have done it hours ago if you hadn't been leaping around like an ape dancing for a piece of fruit. It's damned distracting."
We glared at each other for a bit. Then he let out low chuckle and reached over his head, as if stretching. When he brought his hands down again, each held a cinnas fruit. It was a tricky bit of sleight-of-hand, and I couldn't help being a little impressed.
He juggled the fruits a few times, japing, then tossed one to me. I caught it one-handed, grunting something halfway between a thank you and an apology.
I chewed the fruit as slowly as possible, savoring its rarity and appalling cost nearly as much as its spicy sweetness. By the time I'd sucked all the juice from the bitter rind and gnawed the rest into a tiny ball of fiber, I felt mostly calm. Mostly. I rolled the stone between my palms and tried to think of another angle to try. Maybe if I found a different stone, one that -
"Isn't that the ring that Meluan Lackless gave you?"
I blinked up at Fela, then down at the pale wooden band on my left hand, surprised. It was the first anniversary of my expulsion from the Maer's court, and I had worn it on something of a lark. "What of it?"
"Well ... I'm just surprised you're wearing it. Wasn't it meant as a sort of ... mortal insult?"
I prodded my stomach as if looking for a knife wound. "Must not have worked. I feel fine."
Fela sighed and shook her head. "I'm serious. Don't you stir up enough trouble among the aristocracy without wearing a sign around your neck that says 'I was exiled from Severen by one of the most powerful families in Vintas?'"
I felt myself flush. "Simmon likes me fine, and he's the son of a duke. Besides, it's just a ring. It's not like it's a brand."
Fela gave me a puzzled frown. "A brand?"
I drew in a breath to explain, but Elodin interjected. "The Edema Ruh brand members of the Family found guilty of serious crimes. Crimes associated with 'the traveling rabble,' such as theft, kidnapping, and rape, are punished with exile or ..." He slid a finger across his neck and smiled wryly. "Most of the Edema believe that harsh enforcement of common law is the only way to preserve their reputation as peaceful entertainers and prevent a return to the slaughter that followed on the heels of Alcyon's edict." He waggled his eyebrows at me, threw himself onto the blanket, and rolled onto his back. "Close your mouth, Kvothe. You'll catch flies."
I snapped my jaw shut, but continued to stare. I was surprised by his words ... and oddly upset. Ruh justice was harsher than that of most backwater villages, that was true ... but I'd never spared a thought for why that might be so. Elodin's idea had merit, and it nettled me that I hadn't already known it.
Fela glanced between us, frowned thoughtfully, then turned back to me. "I know it's just a ring, Kvothe. Still, I would think that ..." She froze mid-sentence, winced.
I narrowed my eyes at her. "Don't hold back on my account."
She tossed her head. "Fine. I was just going to say that I would think that dealing with Ambrose had taught you that people like that don't need brands to hurt you."
I stiffened. "That's not the same thing at all. Ambrose hates me because I'm me. Meluan liked me before she learned I was Edema Ruh."
"You make her sound like a heartless racist."
Fela shifted uncomfortably. "I don't know if that's fair, Kvothe. It's personal for her. Besides, by the principles of her own people, she has good reason to hate the Ruh."
"Oh, well, so long as daddy Aculeus agrees," I snapped, voice dripping with sarcasm. "Wait here while I fetch the thumbscrews and rope. Or would you prefer to make a hunt of it?" I tugged at my bright red hair. "I'd make a fine fox, I imagine. How many gowns do you think Meluan could trim with my hide?"
Fela threw up her hands. "Merciful Tehlu, that's disgusting. I didn't mean it like that, and you know it. I'm just saying that it's understandable that Meluan was upset when Netalia ran away. She was her sister-"
"Well, she was my mother!" I exploded. "She was my mother, Fela, and I damn well knew her a far sight better than those ... those lying, self-important, well-heeled, half-witted Vintish bluebloods. They never loved her, not Meluan or any of the rest."
I realized abruptly that I was standing, shouting. Elodin and Fela stared up at me in slack-jawed astonishment, too surprised to do anything but stare.
I didn't care. I didn't want to stop, couldn't stop. The words tumbled past my lips without asking permission from my brain.
"Can't you see? They all just wanted a puppet for their court politics, someone they could dress up in fancy clothes and teach to curtsy and simper so that they could marry her off to the highest bidder the day she was old enough to bed.'
'Not one of them ever cared about what she wanted. They would all rather she had locked herself away in a bower with a lifetime of embroidery than that she should have had one minute of happiness with a filthy ravel trouper like my father. They would rather pretend she died than admit that she ... that she ..."
I choked on my own words as a cruel voice whispered through the back of my mind. They don't have to pretend anymore.
I fell silent. For a time, the only sounds in the meadow were the wind in the trees and the ragged whistle of my breath.
What happened next is difficult to remember, and even more difficult to explain.
You see, my mother had never talked about her family. Although she approved of curiosity on principle and would never have thought to forbid me any topic of discussion, no matter how private, any conversation about her past had always had a singular way of quickly becoming a conversation about my lessons, or the weather, or any other small matter of immediate concern to the troupe. Put simply, she had a marvelous talent for changing a subject.
As a result, I think my brash confession to Elodin and Fela that day in the clearing came as even more of a shock to me than it had to them. Nonetheless, once the words had passed my lips, once they hung before me in the summer air, I knew them for the truth. More, I realized that I'd known them all along. It felt as though the words had drawn back a curtain, had blown away a fog in my mind -
No, those metaphors are inapt. It is truer to say that my words had turned a key in the lock of a door that I had closed long ago, a door I had never meant to open. A door of forgetting.
The trouble, of course, is that the doors of the mind do not simply open and close at will. When they open, they shatter. They fracture under the force of what lies behind them.
I doubt you know how that feels. So I will try to tell you.
At first I experienced only mild bewilderment. I knew that something was wrong, something fundamental and terribly important ... I just couldn't remember what it was.
Then a wild wind howled up from behind the door, an onslaught of emotions too complex to name, too entwined to isolate, too intense to suppress. The meadow spun around me. I lost my balance, pitched forward, struck something solid. I had a vague impression of fabric and firm muscle, of strong arms lowering me onto something soft and sun-warmed.
I hardly noticed. All that mattered, all that existed, was the involuntary spasm of my muscles, the tendrils of fire shooting up my nerves and exploding behind my eyes. I was a lute string, sorely used: taut and frayed and one touch from snapping.
I tasted bile and tried to swallow, but my throat was too tight. My chest had constricted around my lungs, making it impossible to breathe. But the worst of the pressure was focused on the inside of my skull. It felt like my brain was trying to crawl into my eye sockets. I clutched at my head and whimpered as I drowned in a flood of long-buried scents and sights and sounds.
...repainting the wagons on the first day of spring ... herding sheep alongside a pack of tow-headed village boys, autumn air pungent with the smell of manure and hay ... the jangle of my nerves and the sweat under my arms the first time I performed on a proper stage ... my father, bent double with laughter, watching me squirm on a stool the day that Trip bet me a jot that I couldn't sit still in one place for an entire afternoon ... my mother, coaxing me out from under my bedsheets with a promise of honeycake on the night that Teren came back from town drunk as a lord and babbling on about a local band of shamble-men that was gobbling up red-haired little boys in the hope of absorbing their demonic powers ... Abenthy's furious blush when I asked him if he knew why my body had started twitching in odd ways whenever I watched Shandi dance ...
... the trail of blood my father left behind as he crawled towards my mother on the day he died ... the piles of bone and flesh scattered among our circled wagons like the husks of abandoned campfires ... the beautiful man with the black eyes and the nightmare smile ...
Then ... nothing. A wall of willpower struck the door in my mind with the teeth-jarring impact of a battering ram, slamming it shut, and the euphoric torment of memories simply vanished. It left a void behind, a lightness, an emptiness in my throat and chest and lungs and brain. I realized abruptly that I could breathe again, and gasped in great lungfuls of air.
I came back to myself to find that I was lying on the blanket, curled up on my side, head resting in Elodin's lap. He was calling my name, my true name, over and over, and though his voice was hoarse and hollow, it thundered through me like an act of God.
I rolled onto my back and looked up into his eyes. They were wide with panic and, amazingly, wet with tears. He caught my gaze, and his voice stumbled to a halt. Then he sagged forward, fingers trembling where they came to rest in my sweat-drenched hair.
"Tehlu shelter us," he whispered, and it sounded more like a prayer than a curse.
Fela hovered nearby, absently wringing her clay-stained hands in a gesture that revealed both her desire to help and her fear of getting in the way. Glancing between them, I suddenly realized what an awful scene I must have been making.
"Sorry," I mumbled, embarrassed. I thought for a moment, then added, "I'm okay."
A few calming breaths later, my body received the message that the danger had passed, and exhaustion rolled over me in a great wave. My eyes fell shut, the muscles in my neck and shoulders relaxing until my jaw was cradled in Elodin's open palm. I didn't even mind. I let my waking mind wander, then sleep.
I floated for a time in the aimless currents of Spinning Leaf, content in the simple knowledge that I had survived. That I was still sane. That I was safe. But even as I lay there, the feel of the silence within me changed. What had started as a brittle calm crystallized with patient inexorability into something else entirely, something cold and brilliant. With it came a clarity of thought, an intensity of purpose that I had known only once before, on the day I named Felurian. My sleeping mind, awake.
I opened my eyes and fixed my gaze on the waystone at the center of the clearing. I stood.
I staggered slightly as my aching body took my weight. Fela reached for me, but Elodin grabbed her arm and pulled her back. He squinted at me as if staring into a blinding light. "He wears the star," he whispered, and there was wonder in his voice. "Do you see?" Fela gave him an odd look, then turned to me. She shook her head slowly, but Elodin didn't notice. He was staring at me, transfixed, his eyes full of awe and a dreadful hunger.
I walked to the center of the clearing and placed my hand on the rough face of the waystone. Then I started to sing.
The song started deep in my chest: a simple, wordless melody that flowed past my lips without thought or design. My voice was as deep as the earth, as sharp as memory, as needful as love. For the better part of an hour, I sang. I sang as the sun arched towards the clearing. I sang as the shadows grew long.
I sang, and the stone listened.
It fell away in sheets and shards and tiny, glittering flecks. Shapeless slabs of stone gave way to broad grooves and delicate swoops: the curve of a skirt, the slope of a shoulder, the plane of a cheek. Step by step, sliver by sliver, I sculpted features long-forgotten: the strong jaw, the high cheekbones, the canted eyes. I sculpted until only she remained.
I didn't need to touch the stone to shape it. I touched it anyway, just for the heartbreaking joy of being near her again. My hands ran down her forehead and jaw and shoulders and neck, polishing the rough granite until it shone like marble. My fingers sculpted the wrinkles in the corners of her eyes, the dimples in her cheeks, the scars and calluses and all the other tiny flaws that had made her real and human and perfect. That had made her mine.
Finally, there was nothing else to do. I lowered my arms and stepped back. Elodin and Fela stepped forward. For a time, we simply stood shoulder-to-shoulder and stared.
Elodin broke the silence first. "Extraordinary," he whispered.
He was right. The statue before us was a masterpiece, enough to make the great sculptors of Caluptena weep with envy. It was a marvel of form and texture and even color. The woman's hair was jasper and hematite veined with false gold. Her bottle-glass irises were pure aventurine. Her gown was calcite and quartz, lustrous and lucent, all roses and whites and velveteen grays. And the woman herself ...
How to explain? I had always known that my mother was beautiful. I knew it in the dispassionate, logical way that I knew the number of drabs in a jot, the difference between a minuet and a waltz, the basic principles of sympathy. But looking upon her on that day, I saw her for the first time with a man's eyes. And in that moment I realized that she was not simply beautiful. She was so lovely that her statue seemed an allegory of grace, so lovely it could drive a man to madness.
No, she was more than simply beautiful. She was alive. I had captured her in the middle of a wild twirl, hips twisted and arms thrown wide. Her skirts spread out in a rippling circle, revealing the curve of her delicate ankles, the arch of her bare feet. Her tumbling mane of long, dark hair perfectly framed the flush of her cheeks, the bow of her neck, the pearl flash of her teeth, the wild gleam of her eyes. No statue had ever seemed so full of life. And yet ...
She was just a statue, a memory frozen in time. Her eyes stared past me, open and unseeing. I pressed my cheek to hers, and her skin was cold and unyielding stone.
It wasn't enough. Not for me. Not by half. I had no use for a memorial. I wanted my mother. I wanted the woman who had borrowed books from every town we ever visited so that she would have something new to read to me each night. The woman who had taught me meter and verse and the correct distance to incline one's head when speaking to a mayor or baron or king. The woman who had made Trip sleep under the wagons for a week the day she discovered that he had been teaching me to tumble.
I wanted her fierce and protective, clever and kind, willful and furious and tired and bored. I wanted to serenade her, to play her "Home Westward Wind" on a lute with seven strings and six and five. I wanted her to know the sort of man I had become. I wanted her pride, and her forgiveness.
A sullen anger boiled up inside me and I sang out once more, a single sharp note. The taste of it lingered on my tongue like a mouthful of bitter herbs as I lifted her arm and slipped a silvery band off of her thumb. I screwed it onto the ring finger of my right hand, turning it so that the name inscribed on its outer edge would bite into my fingers when I made a fist.
Then I cupped her cheeks in my hands, kissed her forehead, and let out my breath in three long sighs. Each breath was a warm wind that wound its way around her, wearing away the stone until nothing remained of the statue but a pile of dust.
Immediately afterwards, I felt deeply ashamed. In my rage and sorrow, I had destroyed something beautiful, something greater than itself. I fell to my knees and bowed my head, the most profound gesture of grief and remorse that I could imagine. To this day, I do not know whether I was mourning the loss of my mother or the loss of the waystone itself: the traveler's guide, the door that was not a door. Perhaps I mourned both. The cold brilliance of my sleeping mind abandoned me while I was on my knees, and I mourned that, too.
I stood, picked up my shaed, draped it across my shoulders, and walked away. I didn't look back to see if Elodin or Fela followed.
I felt weary and raw, more brittle than eggshells. The thought of locking myself in my tiny garret room at Anker's for the rest of the night was suddenly too painful to contemplate. I would go to Applecourt instead. Auri would be there tonight. I thought of her, soft hands and sunshine, and it sparked a tiny flame inside my chest.
I mounted the steps to the old stone bridge just as the sun ducked below the horizon. Rock dust sloughed off my cloak with each step, shuddering bursts of powder that caught the twilight like a thousand tiny stars, or fireflies, or will-o-wisps. But I knew them for what they really were.