The old house had changed no more than his grandfather had; both were perhaps a bit more worn than they had been, fa├žades sagging a bit further, but each still had that element of understatement, even deception.

And this gave him a measure of comfort. Nations may have trembled on the crux of destruction, thousands by thousands may have perished by his mind, but damn if the battered wisterias didn't defiantly bloom.

He hesitated but a second before ascending the steps up the porch, throwing out a greeting that was a bit more tremulous than he would have hoped. Still, his grandfather offered a completely neutral "Afternoon" in return, just as he would have said any number of times any number of years before.

There was silence after Albert had taken the seat next to his grandfather, one that wasn't quite so easy as it might have been, once, but one that wasn't completely awkward, either.

"Is this a visit?" Leon finally asked.

"Yes. Only a few days."

He gave a nod that Albert felt more than saw. "How did Crystal Valley agree with you?" he asked, as if this worn old house was still his home and he had just returned from a Harmonian vacation.

"It was a bit wet."

"Ahh, yes. They were having a bit of a rainy season then, weren't they?"

"A string of them."

"Yes. And how about the Grasslands?"

"A bit dry, I fear."

"You always were contrary, weren't you?"

"I pride myself on it. How's everyone doing?"

"Hmmm. George managed to catch something of a persistent cough. He and your mother have gone to the Island Nations for some time. But you know that, of course."

"Yes."

"Damian's saddled me with his pair." Leon's voice was proud and content as he announced his hardship. "The elder's showing interest in, God have mercy upon us all, science, but Mathiu looks to do his lineage proud."

"Mathiu?"

"Oh, you know how devoted Janice was to her cousin. She feels like keeping his name alive is the least she can do."

"I wasn't criticizing the choice."

"I know. I wasn't defending it."

"I know. It's a good name."

"Mathiu was a fool. Hopefully, this one will have more sense."

"A fool? Because he risked himself?"

"Because he made the monumental mistake of fighting for ideologies."

"A cardinal sin in the theology of Silverberg."

"One of them, yes."

"Grandfather," Albert said after a drawn-out pause, "I beg of you your absolution."

Leon gave a little noise of scorn at the ritual words. "I'm not the one you should be addressing your plea of forgiveness to."

He smiled a sardonic, vulnerable smile. "But you always were so godlike to me."

"And you always were overly fond of an extended metaphor."

"Ha. I suppose. But please, Grandfather. As my ancestors before me, I have broken thy holy laws."

"And which laws would that be? I have quite a few, you know."

"I know," Albert replied quite vehemently, eliciting a slight chuckle from Leon. "I'm afraid I have defied your teachings too many times to count. I risked my life and well-being for those for whom I fought."

"Yuber?"

"None other. I suspect that he would have killed me several times over had I been less amusing to him."

"That's true of everyone Yuber comes in contact with. There is more, of course."

"Yes. I used my ability for personal gain."

"Yes. What else?"

"I used the Silverberg name to make myself more attractive to those who hired me."

"Yes. What else?"

"I misestimated those I was working against. And working with."

"Yes."

"I didn't attempt to minimize casualties."

"What else?"

"I didn't limit casualties to the military."

"What else?"

"I fought my brother."

"Yes," Leon said with a finality in his voice. "That must have been difficult for you..."

"Well, somehow, I managed."

He waved off Albert's sarcasm. "I don't mean in terms of strategy, and you know it. Caesar never even came close to matching your skill. I mean that it must have been difficult for you." Albert didn't know what to say, so he merely waited until Leon continued. "Sometimes, Albert, I can't help but think that you and your brother were split unevenly. You received all the brilliance of the family, and Caesar all the kindness and goodness of it."

"I don't object to your observations, Grandfather," Albert said, his drawl covering the hurt in his voice. "I object to the fact that you present it in such a trite manner."

"You take after your mother far too much," Leon muttered.

Albert frowned out into the yard. "I don't see that as so bad as you make it out to be."

"You don't know her," he said. "She was beautiful, yes, and eloquent, but God, her ambition! It was the sole driving force in her life. She wanted to marry a Silverberg, because she had heard of the Silverbergs. She was kind to George because she wanted to be known for kindness. She would have abandoned him long ago had he not offered her so much." He sighed. "You didn't know her, so you should stop defending her merely because she's your mother."

The quiet rebuke hung on the air, laden with all of Albert's failings. The silence that slowly crept back would have intimidated him, however many years ago, but he was older now, and full of the experience that Leon had always extolled as being worth ten times cleverness. So he forced an ironic little smile onto his face, and watched his graying grandfather staring out into the yard.

"Grandfather, I beg you - tell me this. If we're not supposed to fight for a cause, and we're not supposed to fight for ourselves, then tell me - what is it that we fight for?"

"We fight to minimize casualties," he replied promptly, "to bring the war to a swift conclusion. We do not prolong or, God forbid, spark a war, merely for personal gain."

"So we're tools."

"If you will." Leon nodded slowly. "Your brother's way of fighting...that was the way to do it. He fought to preserve life, and nothing else. He didn't take a side in the conflict, aside from that of supporting stability. He didn't fight for power or prestige - "

"As I did - "

"As you did," Leon agreed harshly. "You were a fool, Albert. For someone as brilliant as you, someone who could manipulate three countries, one of which the most powerful in the world, as skillfully as you, and all before you're even an adult - you're an incredible fool. Do you know how close they came to destroying everything?"

"I didn't expect them to get as far as they did," Albert muttered, tone just short of petulant.

"I can't see why you didn't. You should have. Your brother did. You don't seem to comprehend the incredible responsibility we have, Albert. I don't know where I went wrong, but you never have. Caesar understood it - that's why he ran away from strategy for so long - but you...You don't seem to comprehend that you can't orchestrate deaths to make yourself look good!"

Again, there was that horrid silence, but this time, Albert shrank against it, mind working furiously for some single word in his own defense. None came. Finally, Leon took pity and sighed.

"Well, you're young, as of yet. We are not born with innate goodness; we learn that, just as we learn our craft."

"Yes." Albert cursed how small and how timid he sounded.

"And you did the right thing, in the end. You managed to undo some of it all. And that is commendable, even if it is far outweighed by the shame in your actions."

"Amen," Albert said, managing to force a sardonic trace back into his voice.

"You didn't expect your penance to be painless, did you?" Leon laughed a little bit. "Well, I expect Mathiu and William will want to meet you. They're dying of curiosity about their cousin Albert, who's hardly much older than them but already chief strategist for one of Harmonia's military divisions. They've been asking questions about you, just like they've been asking about all of the mythology of Silverberg."

"And you, of course, gave no information."

"What sort of teacher would I be if I didn't let them learn? Things earned are much more valued than things received."

"You always did love that strategy, didn't you?"

"Hm. I suspect it's quite effective, don't you?"

"I suppose."

Once again, there was silence - it was always remarkable how a lack of sound could have so many meanings - but it was easy, this time. Finally:

"If you'd like to stay for a few more days, Albert, I have a few pages from the elder Mathiu's early notebooks that I don't think have been seen before."

Albert considered. "Are they nearby?"

"Relatively. They could be here well within the week. And the sooner you reconcile with him, the better. I have a feeling that I'm not the one you really want forgiveness from."

He nodded. "Yes. Very well, then. I would be in your debt if you did...But...don't tell him that I'm here, will you? I don't know that he'd want to see me."

"I think you think too little of Caesar, but it's your choice." Leon stood up with a groan. "The boys should be finishing their reading, soon. They'll want to see you."

Albert nodded, but remained sitting for several moments more, staring out over the barren yard. Then, with his own little sigh, he stood up and followed his grandfather inside.