From the author: Two lives. Two worlds. One person.
The text of this story is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC-BY-SA).
Johan Mercio emphatically did not think about the invitation in the inner pocket of his evening jacket, thick and heavy and anonymous. Instead, he adjusted the feathered plume on his hat and sauntered his way through the crowded ballroom of the palace of Venton, wine glass in hand.
He spotted the Minister of National History in all his civil service-medaled glory. Maybe the invitation wasn’t so anonymous. The minister might have finally agreed to listen to his theories on the impact of the Victorious War.
Johan raised his glass, but the minister gave him a flat stare and turned to resume his own conversation. Of course the invitation wasn’t from the minister.
He noted, as he wove through various groups of nobles, three figures in bright reds and tangerines and golds, their veils draped to show only their eyes. Monks from the Monastery of the Parallels were not forbidden from any gathering, per the laws of the Accords of the Parallels, but they were given wide berth. Two made eye contact with him, and the invitation in his pocket began to feel heavier. He drained his glass of wine and prayed to all of the gods that the Monastery hadn’t gotten hold of his theories and decided to meddle. He took his cue from everyone else and pointedly ignored the monks.
While Johan was nursing the last of his third glass and trying to find a group he had not yet approached, the crowds began to push back. The ballroom hummed as people turned toward the south entrance.
Johan watched over most of the heads as a man as tall and swarthy as himself, his face all planes and sharp edges, parted the crowds with the inevitability of a ship breaking water. Not the prince or one of the dukes, not anyone he recognized. The man’s gaze locked on Johan and stayed there.
The wine glass shook in Johan’s hand. He glanced around, but yes, the man was looking at him. His ears began to rush and his hands and face numbed with a static that leaned toward pain. He felt with a gut-certainty that he knew this man, but he had never seen him before.
“Are you Johan Mercio?”
The man had a strange accent, slurred about the edges, and his voice was compressed as if he was used to bellowing.
Johan surveyed the man’s rigid posture, the left arm slightly bowed where he might normally prop a helmet. Fine scars etched his chin and brow. This man had to be a general.
“Marcus Kato.” Kato gave a stiff nod. “I have come to aid you in your work.”
And then the invitation in Johan’s pocket made sense. He had asked the minister many times for the aid of a general. He’d known he’d never get it, but he asked anyway. Johan eyed where he’d last seen the minister, but only saw the smirking, tittering nobles.
He took in a sharp breath of sweat and clashing perfumes.
A scandal. The minister had invited him to a scandal, his own. It was a blatant attempt to discredit his name and cast doubt on his theories. Kato was no more a general than he was.
Johan made a curt bow. “If you are to help me in my work, be in my office tomorrow morning by seven. We can discuss matters then.”
Kato’s eyes narrowed.
The numbness in Johan’s hands increased, and though he told himself it was nerves, his gut tightened with a deeper dread. Kato was too familiar. He could have been one of Johan’s brothers, or his father even, with the gray salting Kato’s dark, bristly hair.
Color rustled in the crowd, the orange robe and veil of one of the monks from the Monastery of the Parallels. His heart jumped to his throat. If the monks were here, and this Kato looked so much like himself...?
He shoved that thought and everything that went with it away from him. His breathing slowed again.
“I will be there,” Kato said. “In the morning.”
Marcus Kato paced the edges of the Monastery viewing room, rousing dust from the silk-draped walls and flaring the sage-burning braziers.
“That man is not me,” he said.
Li Sha sat on a cushion by her waist-high viewing crystal, which was dormant now, thank God. Her hands were folded in her lap, and she watched him with sapphire eyes through the orange folds of her veil. She was entirely too calm.
“He looks nothing like me,” Kato growled. “He is younger. He is—” He jerked his hand toward his head. Johan Mercio wore that ridiculous purple-feathered hat and had enough oil in his fussy curls to grease a carriage. “I asked you for help to stop my wars, and of all the kings and generals—or, God forbid, philosophers—you could have sent me to, you sent me to a historian! Damn you, monk, how is that supposed to help anything!” He stopped in front of Li Sha.
Violet-uniformed guards at the viewing room doors shifted, their hands coming to rest on the hilts of their sabers.
Li Sha motioned to her viewing crystal. “I have watched your armies devour whole nations. Surely you can handle one historian.”
But how could one historian find answers where he himself could not?
“It is nearing the end of winter in my parallel,” Kato said. “My commanders are already preparing my next campaign. My king will not take kindly to my absence. I need answers now.”
She glared up at him. She and the monks had sent him requests and summons and pleas to come to them, to change his ways, for the entire twelve years of his campaigns.
“Ten days,” Li Sha said. “You can spare ten days. Learn from Johan Mercio what he has to teach you. There is more to that man than you wish to see.”
Kato did not wish to see that man at all.
“Trust me,” Li Sha said. “And trust yourself.”
Kato grunted. He thought of his armies, spread now over too many former kingdoms and still swelling in numbers. There would be more campaigns, more bodies sprawled across bloody fields. And bodies laid out in the cities and the towns, not all of them soldiers.
But he could not break his oaths to his king. He had come to the Monastery because it was his last hope, his last option to end the bloodshed.
“Ten days,” Kato said.
Dawn blushed the sky over the scrolled spires of the ministry building when Johan turned the key in his office door and stepped inside. His head felt like it had been used for drum practice, courtesy of too much wine at the reception, but he had a bottle of seltzer in his desk for just such occasions. He closed the door and began the process of shrugging out of his tight-fitting jacket. Then he stopped.
Marcus Kato sat behind Johan’s desk.
“Gods above. How did you get in here?”
Kato stood and squeezed around the side of the desk. “Forgive me for startling you. The duty guard let me in.”
Johan brushed past Kato, the sense of a gong ringing in his head when their sleeves brushed. He shivered and barricaded himself behind the safety of his desk, straightening the stacks of files and books that Kato had mussed in passing.
Kato handed across a small portfolio. The leather smelled fresh. “My credentials.”
Kato loomed over him, and Johan blinked hard to focus on the writing inside the portfolio. It was an official document, granting one Marcus Kato permission to reside in Venton and to work as a consultant in the Ministry of National History. Johan peered at the seal, with the High Minister’s signature mix of gold and bronze flakes.
“How can I be of use to you, sir?” Kato’s words were clipped, his posture stiff.
“I—” Johan fluttered his hands. The man was a legitimate general. A general-in-exile perhaps? What was the minister playing at?
“You could best help me, sir, by offering a blind analysis.” He gathered books and folders from his desk. “There is a study room across the hall and to the left, I am sure it will suit your needs. If you can read these and provide a summary of the reports, that would be a start.”
Kato glanced at the stack, then tucked it under his arm in military dispatch fashion. “If that is all?”
Johan watched him leave. He hadn’t quite believed Kato would take the stack.
He yanked open his desk drawer and drained the bottle of seltzer.
Marcus Kato shoved another heap of papers aside and rubbed at his eyes. He had scribes for this sort of work. There were books and ledgers and supply tallies and after-action reports. All of them made a picture of a fairly routine, if ultimately victorious, war of conquest. There was nothing here that could help him end his own wars.
He’d sat in this closet of a room, with its chairs that cramped his back and flattened his ass, for four days now. He’d given Li Sha ten; six more would make no difference.
Kato scraped back from the table. He stepped into the hall and paused. Johan’s office door stood open and the voices within escalated to shouts.
“You have put forth this opinion enough, Mercio, enough I say! You would make our kings to be villains, and have us tear down the statues of our revered generals? It is a malicious lie. If you dare to place another report on my desk with the intent to undermine our proud nation, you will be through here! Your father’s wealth cannot shield you, sir.”
The minister stormed out and Kato jumped back, shutting the door. He waited until the minister’s bellow had faded down the hall, then squared himself and strode to Johan’s office.
Johan sat very still behind his desk, his face unnaturally calm. By God, forget the curls and the lace, in that moment Johan looked too much like himself.
Kato pointed in the direction the minister had gone. “What was that about?”
Johan’s mouth edged tight. “That is a man who is scared of the truth.”
“And what is the truth, Master Mercio?”
Johan’s eyes lit like coals fanned to flame.
“You have read the reports of this war, our Victorious War as we call it, fought two hundred years ago. It is what has defined Venton, it is part of our national pride,” he spat that in the pompous tone of the minister, “to have unified so many smaller states into this grand and peaceful nation.”
Johan cut the air with his hand. “It is a lie. We glorify our conquering generals, we praise them for bringing the surrounding kingdoms into enlightenment. But these men tore into lands that were at peace with them, ravaging farms and estates and villages, killing tens of thousands of soldiers and as many or more civilians. What Venton is today was won by greed and blood.”
“It was a war,” Kato said evenly. “Yes, I have seen your reports. There are always casualties in war. Your country is stable. There aren’t soldiers in the streets, there aren’t people going hungry—”
“There are more poor in this city than there have ever been,” Johan said. “We pretend not to see them. We keep them out of our wealthy districts, and they starve in their hovels. I go to them, and they believe me when I say that it was Venton’s greed that got them there—” Johan clamped his mouth shut.
Kato eyed Johan warily. “There are poor in every city. Starvation is hardly new.”
Johan shoved a paper across to Kato. “Here. Read this. You haven’t seen this one yet.”
Kato took the sheet of parchment and scanned the text. It was part of an eyewitness account of a battle to take a city. The witness saw three street children, none more than eight years old, cut down by Ventonese soldiers when they tried to attack them with knives and sticks. Brave lads.
“And this one.”
The next was an accounting of supplies gained from the forced taking of an enemy lord’s estate. A footnote listed the weaponry and goods taken from the dead, among them a double handful of dresses and shoes that could only have come from women and children.
Kato handed both back. He had seen such reports before. Most of these matters were handled on a lower level, but if the event was significant enough, the report made it into his hands.
“I have never liked it,” he said, “but it is simply a part of war.”
Johan shook his head and his lips pressed tighter. “My family gained our wealth through the trading of such stolen goods. We were only small merchants in Tentek, but then we saw the opportunity for profit and joined with the Ventonese. We rose quickly. We sold out our people.”
Ah, then it was personal. Kato had dealt with plenty of junior officers, and even some of his field generals, who came to him at one time or another in a lathered moral rage. He’d heard them out, and then pointed them, slowly but surely, to the reasons why they were men of war. To their duties to their oaths, to their king and their country.
“Master Mercio,” Kato said, “I understand. But this guilt is not yours, you did not do these things yourself—”
“Yes, but I still profit from them! We all do, and this blindness is tearing apart our humanity—”
Kato held up his hand. “What has happened is in the past. Your government is stable, and I will hazard that it is stronger now than it ever was before the war that united it. You have a duty to maintain that stability—”
“I have a duty—”
Johan stood, his face red and blotchy. “Leave.”
Kato hesitated, then bowed and left the office.
The next day, Kato went straight to the study room. He went through the stacks of books and ledgers again and began a new report.
Venton’s Victorious War had stabilized the nations in this region, had vastly improved the lifestyles and lifespans of the inhabitants, and had even improved morale and brought in new relations and trade with foreign powers. None of this would have been possible if Venton had not taken the initiative two hundred years before. He had to make Johan see this before the man got himself hanged.
Kato left that evening satisfied he would have a full report the next day. He walked down clean, cobbled streets and breathed in the musk of horse and cinnamon of pastry vendors on the street corners.
Around him, street lamps flared to life, then settled to a warm glow. Houses rich in scrollwork spilled light through many windows, their inhabitants moving to a leisurely dance. A carriage pulled up to one entrance and spilled out laughing, glittering young people.
How could Johan not see this was a paradise? How could he possibly want to bring it down? If this was what Kato was building, he wasn’t sure he wanted to stop his wars. Maybe it was worth the price.
Johan felt Kato working down the hall in the tightness of the air. He didn’t know what the general was doing after he’d shattered the benefit of the blind analysis, but he doubted he would like it.
Kato was too much a military man. He would never understand the heart of Johan’s theories: that a nation born of atrocities, that would not acknowledge its crimes, would never rise above those origins. The corruption would only turn inward and fester.
A knock came on his door and one of the gangly office messengers handed him an envelope before rushing out again.
Johan broke the seal and pulled out a single sheet of paper, not signed. But there was nothing mysterious about this invitation. He read the lines again and his lips compressed.
Now he would see what all of this was about.
Johan tugged himself into his jacket. He paused by the mirror propped on one of his bookshelves to adjust the folds of lace at his throat. Satisfied and thus armed, Johan swept out.
He rapped on Kato’s door. “We are required in the minister’s office.”
Kato frowned, glanced at his book-stacked worktable, and then stepped into the hall. He closed the door before Johan could see more of what was inside.
When they arrived at the minister’s office, an aide ushered them inside. Sunlight streamed through tall windows, framing the minister behind his massive, vine-carved oak desk. The minister glanced up from his work and regarded them, pen poised in bloated fingers.
“Master Mercio. Master—Kato, is it?”
The minister motioned with his pen at two chairs in front of his desk. “Please, take a seat.”
“Is this about Master Mercio’s theories?” Kato asked. “I have written my own report that highlights the benefits of your Victorious War.”
Johan clenched his hands on his knees and did not look at Kato.
The minister paused. Johan watched mental gears so obviously scrape before the minister scowled again. He had been surprised by Kato’s comment.
Johan’s stomach churned.
“That is well, Master Kato,” the minister said, “but I do not believe your word is valid at this point, and much the pity.” He held out his hand. “May I see your travel permits, entrance documents, and permission to be in these offices?”
Kato stirred and handed over his portfolio. The minister studied it for a moment, and then sniffed.
“It is a good forgery,” he said, “but the High Minister’s office has no record of an application by a Marcus Kato.”
Kato went rigid.
“Minister,” Johan said, but then stopped. Was he going to defend Kato? Wasn’t the man working for the minister?
But the minister had been surprised by Kato’s siding against Johan.
Too many thoughts had tugged at Johan’s mind these last few days for him to continue to ignore them. Kato was—something else. He almost checked around him for the brightly colored robes of the monks.
“We do not begrudge visitors to our nation, or even advisors in our capitol,” the minister said in a tone of false amiability. “But you see, the proper procedures must be followed. If you are here from another nation, you must have permits for travel and residency in our lands. If you are here from another parallel, well, there are other protocols to be followed by the Accords of the Parallels.”
The muscles in Kato’s neck stood taut and corded, but Johan read confusion in his eyes. He didn’t know, did he, these specific laws in the Accords? He’d had secretaries for such legalities. He didn’t know that to cross parallels without documentation was to forfeit any and all rights, and be subject to the will of the nation he’d crossed into.
Johan stood. “Sir. Minister. I will see that this is sorted out.”
Kato and the minister stood as well, the minister with his too-wide smile.
“What is the name of your parallel, Kato? I will need that for the paperwork.”
Kato opened his mouth, closed it again, and looked to Johan. Then he looked past him, scanning the room.
The door banged and guards spilled in, helmets and breastplates gleaming ornate silver, long knives held ready.
Kato blurred and two of the guards fell before he rounded on a third.
Johan fumbled for his belt and a dagger, but he had not carried one since his boyhood days with his family’s caravans.
Johan rounded on the minister, who stood pale, his eyes catching glints from the guards’ knives.
“Stop this,” Johan hissed.
“You had it coming, Mercio,” the minister said in a smug voice. “I warned you—”
Johan punched the minister in the face. Cartilage gave with a satisfying crunch, and the minister toppled backwards.
Johan yelped and tried to shake out the pain in his hand.
A shout behind him made him turn, just in time to duck the knife swipe of a guard.
Kato jabbed his knife under the man’s chin. Johan watched as red bloomed there, the guard’s hands coming up and then spasming as he fell. Red sprayed across the front of the desk, painting the carved vines.
“Johan!” Kato yelled, and tossed him a knife. It nicked his sleeve and clattered on across the room.
Johan had seen so many battles in his mind. He had read so many reports, and he’d thought he’d understood the smell of blood, but it was nothing like this. Nothing like this tang that got in his mouth and throat, sharp and cool as iron.
There were four guards on the floor, and Kato’s sleeves bled red. Kato grappled with one guard, then spun him to use as a shield against another.
This wasn’t war. This was a group of ceremonial guards, and the minister wanted Kato and him to fight them. He wanted blood stacked against them. Kato was the means to silence Johan.
The corruption continued.
Johan shook his head sharply. “Kato, stop!” He turned to see another guard lunging for him and jumped back, stumbling into the chair. “I surrender! I surrender!”
The guard grabbed Johan and yanked his hands behind his back, clapping on the manacles.
The minister was just now getting to his feet. He held his red-soaked handkerchief to his nose. “Good man,” he said to Johan.
Johan’s whole face puckered in an effort not to spit at him. The guard shoved his head down.
Johan was jerked sideways, and then the guard cried out and let go. Kato crashed the guard into another chair, splintering the wood. Two more hustled in to take the first guard’s place.
Kato grunted and staggered as one scored a cut to his shoulder. The guards closed in, and Kato raised his knife.
“Kato, stop!” Johan yelled.
Kato wobbled back. It was enough for the guards to knock the knife from his hand and force him to the floor.
They thunked Johan down beside him, the plush wool rug pressing into his cheek. He met Kato’s eyes. They were bright with rage. And then the guards stepped between them. Pain exploded in Johan’s head and everything else faded to darkness.
Kato had only been in the cell a handful of minutes, almost long enough to bring some wits back into his ringing head, when the iron door grated open. The guards came back, half-dragging Johan.
Kato jerked against the chains bolting him to the floor, slurring every curse he could think of through puffing lips. The manacles bit into his wrists, and cuts that the surgeons had hastily sewn and bandaged after the prison guards had given him a thorough beating started seeping blood.
The guards fixed Johan’s manacles to the bolt in the floor, kicked Kato in the knee, and left.
Kato leaned his head back and waited for the dizziness to pass. Nausea crept up his throat and he breathed in deeply, gagging at the lungful of piss and shit.
He looked over at Johan. There were no windows this far down in the prison, but some light filtered through the high barred opening in the door. A bandage wrapped Johan’s forehead, already half-soaked with blood. Two fingers were bent in the wrong direction, though nothing else seemed broken.
He didn’t stir.
Kato rattled his chains. “Johan!”
Johan twitched, too long of a second after, and groaned.
“We’ll get out,” Kato said. “We’ll find a way out.”
Johan’s jaw worked a moment before words came. “They’re going to kill us.” Johan sniffed. His cheeks streamed with tears.
Bile flared back up Kato’s throat. He wanted to shout at Johan to pull himself together, but the rage died quickly and left him panting.
Surely Li Sha could see him here, in her viewing crystal. Surely she would get him out.
“I’m sorry,” Johan said. “My theories.”
Kato barked a laugh. Maybe Johan’s theories of Venton’s corruption had been the issue, but Kato knew that he had been the lever the minister had used.
“Alright, how did the minister do it?”
“Your papers,” Johan coughed. “You’re not from this parallel.”
Kato bared his teeth. He didn’t know the Accords as well as he should; they had never been relevant on the battlefield, and Li Sha knew that. She had watched him for years.
And she had sent him here.
If he died here in this parallel, his offensive would fall apart in months. Resistance in the nations he had already taken would broaden the chaos, and his king would be overthrown. The monks would bring in another man, someone who could, eventually, bring peace. Marcus Kato would never have to break his oaths.
“Damn,” Kato said softly.
In all of Johan’s work, he’d somehow never thought he’d end up in prison. He hurt everywhere, though in the hours he’d sat here, most of it had dulled to a steady throbbing. He tried not to think about his fingers and the crooked garlic sneer of the guard as he’d held Johan’s hand against the stone wall.
“Kato,” he croaked. He tried to swallow, but he hadn’t had a drink for hours.
“Uh?” Kato said.
He needed to think of something other than the fire in his throat, the cold in his bones, and how he would probably not leave here alive.
“Why did you come here? Did you somehow sneak through the Monastery?”
Kato barked a laugh. “No, but I would like to see someone try.”
“Then gods, man, what did you do to them? Did they want you to get caught?”
Kato grimaced, and then stared at the wall. Johan wanted to prompt him, but maybe in this place it was best to let the man have his peace. He shifted against the wall and tried to will himself to sleep.
“I am High Marshall of the armies of Naraken,” Kato said. “And the Monastery sent me to you to help stop my wars.”
And Johan learned how Kato, a son of his kingdom’s minor nobility, had risen quickly through the ranks. When he had helped turn the tide in a battle for another nation’s capital, his king had made him a general.
“He tasked me with planning his next campaign. He wanted more, more more more, and I gave it to him. I gave him a weapon, and the sharper it became, the more he wished to cut.”
He looked at Johan, and the pride on his face warred with shame.
What did Kato want from him? He knew who Kato was. Kato was himself, in another parallel. And Kato was everything he despised.
“They sent me here to die,” Kato said, “because it solves all problems. Except for getting you caught up in this.”
Johan should have never accepted that invitation to the palace reception.
“I want peace,” Kato said. “I am tired of the wars and all of the deaths.”
Did Kato want Johan to absolve him? Kato had tried to undermine his theories, and it had been Kato’s mess that had made the Monastery meddle in Johan’s affairs.
But Kato had fought for him in the minister’s office. And maybe Kato had thought he’d been helping Johan in writing that report, regardless of how wrong it was. Kato was a man of honor, in his own way. And Johan could feel a sameness there, like a cord thrumming to a matching note inside himself.
“Maybe the Monastery will come to claim you in a few days,” Johan said.
Kato snorted. “That I can hope for, but not bet my life on.”
The sentence, when it arrived, was death. Bolstered on either side by hulking guards, the messenger wheezed out the charges of espionage and treason in a flat, bored voice.
They took Kato first. Johan croaked his protest, but the guards shut him up with a casual, heavy slap.
They marched Kato up three stories and into a cramped room that smelled of damp and rotten meat. The guards locked his chains into a chair in the center, then left.
Kato waited. Every few handfuls of breaths, he heard footsteps in the corridor. Or occasionally a scream. He closed his eyes and willed his breathing to slow, to keep himself in focus. Waiting was part of the breaking.
Had the Monastery truly been silent, or had they told Venton to have their way with him? Was this their method of forcing atonement for his many sins?
The door opened and Kato hoped, in one ludicrous moment, to see the orange robes of Li Sha. But there were only the guards.
They shoved a sack over Kato’s head, thick with mildew. Panic clawed up his throat. He swallowed convulsively and nearly gagged.
They led him out again and, blind now, he listened. He counted steps. He felt for cross breezes in the corridors. He heard the clink of the guards’ armor and felt the solid, round muzzle of the flintlock pistol at his back. He calculated his chances of grabbing it.
Open air hit him, cold and dry. The guards levered him up into what felt like the back of a prison wagon, the rough wood catching at his clothes as they shoved him to sit. They locked his manacles to the floor and then packed in around him. The wagon jerked into motion.
A drone began to grow over the clattering of the wagon wheels on cobbles. It was soft waves at first, and then it gained rhythm and movement and voices. The wagon lurched in a turn and then backed itself up. The wall he leaned against thrummed with the roar of the crowd.
If there was any chance of his escape, it would be here. Any change of hands left openings, and a crowd brought anonymity. Kato waited.
The sack was yanked off his head and he gulped in cleaner air. But he read the meaning in the guards’ black stares—there would be no dignity in death for one who had killed some of their own. They would give him no hood to hide his death mask.
The back doors swung inward and Kato squinted hard against the sunlight. Then the guards finished unlocking his manacles from the ring bolts.
Kato dove out and into two guards, and they all went sprawling. His body hit wood. He was on a platform. He lurched to roll over, off the side and into the crowd—
He saw the men gathered at the far end of the platform. One man in particular stood tall in his blood-stained fussy shirt and trousers, his head covered in a sack.
Johan? Kato had thought he was back at the prison.
He looked at the crowd, the shouting and jeering faces. He could fall into them, it was his best and only chance of escape.
And then he looked back to Johan.
Two guards forced Johan to his knees and bent him over the block. The axe man raised his axe, the blade edging sunlight.
A guard grabbed Kato’s arm, but he ripped it free and launched himself upright, stumbling, but moving forward. What in the world was Johan doing here? Hadn’t Kato left him behind? In the prison cell?
The axe came down.
Pain stabbed like a sword through Kato’s chest and he staggered. His knees hit the platform. He looked down, but there was no blood, no wound. He had felt Johan die, the soul cord between them cut.
A crack split the air and punched his shoulder, shoving him down into the wood. The crowd in front of the platform blurred, then cleared, then blurred again. He saw blues and grays and browns, and two vivid streaks of gold and orange.
The orange shape of the veiled monk moved toward him. Even here in this crowd, Li Sha commanded the space around her.
Kato levered himself up as she vaulted onto the platform.
“You,” he croaked. “Damn you.”
The boards shuddered beneath him and the fingers of the guards dug into his arms.
Li Sha raised her hands. “I claim this man for the Monastery!”
She had to shout it again, and again, until the crowd fell into a restless silence.
The guards holding Kato stilled, but they didn’t let go. He was glad of it, because he was about to add to his list of sins the killing of a monk.
“I claim this man,” Li Sha shouted again. “He is the business of the Monastery. Release him to my custody!”
Guards in the bright violet uniforms of the Monastery pushed their way onto the platform.
“No!” He would not go with them. He would have nothing to do with the Monastery.
His own guards pulled him back, and then the Monastery guards surrounded him.
He fought, but they were ready for that. The last thing he saw before they pulled the sack back over his head was Li Sha, regarding Johan’s body. And then she turned away.
When the sack came off, Kato was in the sitting room of his hotel lodgings. A fire crackled in the hearth. Two of the Monastery guards still held him, and he felt the presence of more behind him. A gold-robed monk lurked near the hearth chair, and to Kato’s left, by the table, stood Li Sha.
“Remove his shackles,” she said.
“That’s not a good idea,” Kato croaked.
Li Sha’s eyes creased in a frown, and she poured a glass from a pitcher on the table. “Here.”
One of the guards took the glass and pressed it to his lips, and despite himself, he drank. First one choking swallow, and then cool water coursed down his throat. He felt the manacle locks click and his arms come free, and then his feet.
Kato knocked the guard with the glass aside and rushed Li Sha.
Kato froze. The monk by the hearth was fighting off his gold veil. Kato cringed away from this unmasking, even now it was blasphemy to look upon the face of a monk. But it wasn’t a monk that he saw.
His eyes filled and his body trembled. He reached for his chest where he still felt the pain of the cut cord, and then he gasped in a new fire that flared in his arm. His shoulder was soaked with blood.
“Kato, you’re injured.” Johan rushed forward and helped him into the chair.
Kato sat, just breathing, and stared at him. He watched again in his mind’s eye as the man on the platform was shoved down to the block. He felt the stinging numbness in his hands and face, and he felt the soul-pain as the cord snapped.
“But I saw you—”
Johan, his eyes red, shook his head. “After they took you, they came for me. They brought me to a room, and then she came in.” He jabbed his chin at Li Sha. “She claimed me for the Monastery. I asked, and she said that she had claimed you, too. Gods, woman, what did you do to him?” He clutched at his chest. “What was that?”
“That was another of your soul, from another parallel,” Li Sha said. “He requested redemption. It was his choice to come, and he did what he had to willingly. He was at peace.”
The words rang empty in the room.
Li Sha reached up and unwound her veil. Kato didn’t flinch this time. She watched them with her blue eyes framed by swarthy features, a sharp nose and edged cheekbones. But for the blue eyes, she could have been Kato’s mother.
“No,” Li Sha said. “I am not your mother.” She glanced at Johan. “Or your sister. I am yourself. I am myself.” She motioned to both of them. “And we, all of us, we do what we must.”
She was himself? And she had still done what she’d done?
Kato stood, slowly. His legs shook, but he took a step forward, and he saw fear flash in Li Sha’s eyes.
Kato spat in her face.
Johan froze. And then he began stripping out of the Monastery robes.
Li Sha wiped her face with her sleeve. “Do you know the power of a martyr, Johan Mercio? I have given you a great gift in your cause. Keep the robes, you will need them until you are ready to show yourself.”
Johan’s face blotched red with the heat of anger. He yanked off the last of the robes and threw the bundle at Li Sha. “I don’t need your help.”
And then he stood tall, shivering in his undergarments, his body mottled yellow and green with bruises. Kato had never seen a finer soldier.
Johan held Kato’s gaze and there was a sense of finality, an understanding that now was the last time either of them would see the other. Johan was not quite a brother, and not quite a friend. He was himself.
Kato nodded, and Johan nodded back. Then, Johan strode for the door.
“Hey,” Kato said, and moved as quickly as he could to a table chair where one of his jackets still hung. He tossed it at Johan, who caught it. Johan shrugged the jacket on and made as if to fix the lace that wasn’t there. His hands stopped, and his mouth curved in a rueful smile.
“This habit will take some time to break,” he said. He made a salute like a tipping hat and left.
Kato blew out his breath and turned to Li Sha. “I’ll stay here with him. He will need help if he’s going to tear this place down and not get killed doing it.”
“And what about your own parallel?”
“I am done with my parallel.”
She leaned back against the table. “That would be easier, wouldn’t it? To simply leave and let someone else clean up the messes you have made.”
Anger boiled up and Kato tried to step forward again, but the room tilted and he staggered back to the chair.
Li Sha pulled a small crystal from the folds of her robe and advanced on him. “I want to heal to your wound. I must, at least, stop the bleeding.”
Kato grunted, but he let her probe at his blood-soaked shoulder. The skin tingled with warmth as she held the crystal near, and the pain began to ease.
All of his career as a soldier he had healed unusually fast. That hadn’t been him, had it? And he and Johan should have been much worse off after the guards’ beatings.
Whatever Li Sha had done, and it was horrific and it was certainly unforgivable, he knew in his gut she had not meant him harm. She hadn’t meant Johan harm, and maybe not even the other of their soul who had given his life for them.
She met his gaze. “We do what we must.”
Did it matter, then, if she wanted him to return to his parallel or not? He could stay here with Johan, but this wasn’t his nation to save. Yes, it would be easier to leave the mess of his wars to another, like it would be easier for Johan to deny his theories and settle back into his academic life. But that was not Johan. And that, Kato knew, was not himself.
In all of his incarnations.
Li Sha pulled back from his shoulder. There was still pain, but he saw through the tear in his sleeve that the skin had puckered into a rippling, pink scar.
“You can take my carriage to the Monastery,” she said.
Kato stood, still feeling unsteady, but he was not willing to stay here with her any longer.
It was time to go home and face his king, and his men. It was time to face the choices he had to make, and he would find a way to bring peace.
Kato squared himself and marched out to a different kind of war.
This story originally appeared in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.