1 Chapter 1 - The Mirror

Kidu's world went from white to black to blue. His eyes squinted at the pale sky after having kept them closed for several minutes. He had been climbing for hours staring at the same fresh coat of snow so white for so long that he was afraid the brightness would blind him.

For those few minutes, he thanked the gods for the moments of darkness and solitude as he caught his breath. As he laid on his back he felt his chest heave like the morning wind he had endured as it beat against his limbs and face as he climbed. His nose was raw and his nostrils burned from the cold. He slowed his heartbeat until the nostrils stopped burning and his breathing was as quiet as the mountain.

The wind was gone, as was his water. He shook the last few drops from the waterskin onto his tongue. Last night's snowfall added hours to the climb; he had expected a light dusting, not a thick layer of endless white. It was already afternoon, and his stomach's rumbling felt like thunder in the silence.

He hoped that Timlan still had the dried meats. The boy always did prepare for the worst, while he himself always expected the worst but teased at arriving at the edge of how bad bad could be. Kidu pinched the snow by his side and began stuffing it into his waterskin.

He pulled off his wool cap and watched the steam rise from the wet brim. "Timlan!" he called, not because he wanted to but because the enjoyment of the silence gave way to guilt of leaving the boy behind. His voice was absorbed by the pale sky, and the pale sky did not call back. He had gone too far ahead. He thought of the boy and his notebook tumbling off the edge of the mountain, and of himself not realizing the boy was dead and waiting for hours for him to appear. Or even worse, surviving the fall and making a report to the elders. Kidu was supposed to be responsible for me! You name him as my mentor but he leaves me all the time! Including at the bottom of the mountain with all my bones broken and I had to crawl back to the city by myself!

He pulled his topknot loose and chewed on the loose curls at the end of his braid. What do you expect, I'm barely older than he is, he thought in his hypothetical defense as he looked at the boy's imaginary broken bones. It's the council's fault for assigning me an acolyte this early. He sat up and propped his cap upon his fingers as he bobbed it against the sun, imagining himself nodding back. "Yes, I agree," he whispered. Faint crunching of footsteps in the snow crept toward him until it was overtaken by heavy breathing.

"Please tell me the Mirror isn't much further," Timlan gasped, catching his breath. "You said it was two hours from the Cloud Seat."

"Did I say two?" Kidu squinted at Timlan. "I'm pretty sure I said eight. Do you have any more of that salted fish?"

Dropping to one knee, Timlan loosened the drawstrings of his sack, dug into his bag and tossed a strip of tough dried flounder to Kidu. "You said it would only take two hours, there wasn't a need to bring so much food and water. We'd be back by lunch, you said. You didn't say the climb would be this difficult."

"You think this is a hard climb, do you?" Kidu asked. "The last time I was up here, it was in the beginning of Spring. The passage up was slick with rain and moss. There were probably a dozen of us. It was so slippery that one of the younger monks asked to tie a rope that attached all of us at the waist should one of us slip."

"Now that sounds like a good idea," Timlan said.

"Until one of them falls and brings everyone else down," Kidu said, chewing on the fish. "One of us fell that day, and no we did not tie a rope between us."

"Tell me why are we up here again?"

"To make sure there's no one up here." A vulture beat his black wings and landed on a branch. He cocked his bare wrinkled head and eyed the fish. Kidu tore off a piece and tossed it to the bird.

"Sounds like a noble assignment," Timlan said. "I'm sure scaling the mountain to visit the Celestial Mirror in the dead of winter would appeal to the most adventurous of monks. Someone like, say, Naja."

Kidu chuckled. "Naja would jump at any opportunity if she thought that it was something I remotely expressed an interest in. She's greener than she likes to admit. There's no chance I'm letting her make the climb to the Mirror."

Timlan handed his waterskin to Kidu. "Naja volunteered for this mission, didn't she? She only has one less Spring than you but you can't stand someone younger getting more responsibility than you, isn't it?"

"I've decided I regret bringing you along," Kidu said after drinking from the boy's waterskin. The vulture inched closer along the branch.

"I don't think you should have fed that thing."

Kidu handed the waterskin back to Timlan and stood up with his chin high and chest protruding. "The Celestial Mirror...for thousands of years the gods have wept over the sad fate of man, and those tears trickle from the tips of the clouds as they brush along the mountain. The tears turn to streams and fill that mysterious pool of water near the top of the mountain. The legend goes that when one stares into the Mirror, the cosmos stares back. So few have ever been able to look into that holy window into infinity."

"I thought you said there were a dozen of you that saw it last time," Timlan said, buckling the waterskin to his belt. The edge of the mountain was only a few feet away. "The world seems so small. Even some of the clouds are below us. From below the clouds seemed so big. Now that I'm above them, it doesn't seem big at all. I suppose that's how I should look at life's problems."

Kidu stretched his legs. "What problems could you possibly have?" He rose and glanced at the city below, identifying the landmarks. The walls of Angshar ran most the length of the city, the low brown tops of the houses huddled in bunches that made more sense when not looked at from above.

Thin streams of smoke and steam piped out from smoke stacks of the forges and factories. Piercing the layer of smoke and steam was the narrow stone Hearth Tower, an unlit beacon pointing up to the sky like a needle from the center of the city. At the rear of the city was the House itself, the temple with the tall red pagodas and its large courtyards. He couldn't see the House's flags from here. He wondered if someone was following him through the looking glass in the observatory. He waved, just in case someone was watching.

Two days ago Master Rengu had summoned the younger monks for a mission. Someone had been stealing from the Cloud Seat, the temple cut into the side of the mountain. Accessible only through a long chain of narrow steps, hardly anyone visited the Cloud Seat. Kidu has volunteered, as he always did, when the missions allowed him to take time away from studying the old scrolls.

Kidu began climbing again. His head was clearest when he climbed, and several times he had to remember to pause and look behind him for the boy to catch up. Through a pathway they wound through a bend in the mountain. The snow was particularly deep around the bend, and they pulled each other up onto a bank. When they reached the top, Kidu motioned with his chin at the pond. It was small and frozen and half covered with snow.

"So this shows me the cosmos, eh?"

"After a long climb you'll see whatever your mind tells you to see," Kidu said. "Come on, let's walk on it."

"Are we allowed to?"

Kidu slid down the bank and walked across the ice. He turned to look at Timlan and then jumped up and down. "You may never get to do this again. It's quite safe. The ground is completely frozen. There's a platform on the other side we need to get to."

Timlan slid down the bank and started across the pond, but slipped and fell onto his stomach. Several attempts to get up resulted in landing on his stomach again. He rapped his knuckles against the frozen pond and peered into the ice.

"I think I see something. The bottom is like a rainbow. It's like it's swirling with colors, but frozen still."

"Help me dig through this," Kidu said from the platform.

The clouds from the morning had dissolved without any traces into the afternoon, and the sun felt heavy. Timlan joined Kidu in shoving aside the snow. There was something Kidu was trying to remember, and he paused for a while before pointing at a new spot for Timlan to dig. Kidu squinted his eyes and focused on a single point in the snow. This was something important, Timlan thought, so he dug as deeply as he could.

"What do you see?" Timlan finally asked, not sure if he was actually supposed to stop digging.

"The last time I was here," Kidu said, looking out to the valley below, "I thought we were here to learn some great spiritual secret. We all camped in this very spot because this area gave us shelter from the wind and rain. In the morning we meditated and prepared ourselves for enlightenment. When Master Rengu gathered us at last, he had us recite poems that we had written."

"I don't understand why we were digging. What were you looking for?"

"My poem was about Springtime. I think I was around fifteen years old then." Kidu cleared his throat:

The delicate flower

Dies to dust

On a cold bed

In the heavy bend of time;

The sigh of remembrance

Recalls only the wilted petals

For my heart has never known

The Children of Moment

"I know this poem!" Timlan exclaimed. "That's the beginning of the Song of Spring! I read it last quarter in class. Honestly I had no idea you had written that. Did you publish that when you were fifteen? We read a series of poems to discuss the different ways people describe the same thing. The whole poem is great, it captured the feeling of Spring pretty well."

The ground was blackened at the bottom of the hole in the snow. "An encampment was made here not too long ago before the fresh snows fell. Someone was here, looking for something. Someone not from Angshar." Kidu stood up and stretched his arms. "Naja has never made the climb to the Mirror. She would not have found this encampment."

Timlan sensed a significant development and pulled out his quill and notebook to begin jotting down the findings. He noted the location, the time of the day and the depths of the snow that was removed.

"Do not mistake the poem for Springtime," Kidu said. "The stories we tell and the poems we write are created from our limited ability to understand the cosmos. It's easy to lose yourself in other people's stories. Take the poem for what it is. Spring is meant to be lived. People think they are on some path to find the meaning of life, but they wouldn't know what to do if they found it. And don't write down notes about this site. This isn't important."

Kidu continued on past the platform. There were several cascading plateaus that he climbed, calling on Timlan to keep pace. "In a few weeks when the snows begin to melt we wouldn't be able to stand here at all. This is one of the waterfalls that feed the Mirror. We call them Angshar's Tears. Stand here, next to me. Look above the rocks, by the shrubs that hang above. There, do you see it?"

Timlan stared until he began to make out a shape against the mountain. High above them looked like the facade of a building carved into the stone. The snow had covered some of the grooves of the carvings, but the more he stared at it, the more it started to reveal itself. "What's in there? Bats?"

"Perhaps," Kidu answered, walking up the waterfall, "though the grey bats prefer to sleep through the winter in the mountains to the north. No, I'm going to check to see if something else is sleeping in there. Nearly a hundred years ago, this used to be a jail, of all things. Lanfryd the Small became king of Kienne at the age of thirteen. Being a dwarf, he endured many insults when he sat on the throne. Some had quietly mocked him, suggesting that the length of his rule would only match the length of his limbs. One day one of the ministers of his court openly japed about the king's shortcomings, saying that the king needed a smaller throne. Lanfryd decided to show that minister how big a shadow he could really cast. He ordered a small cell fit for a dwarf to be built in the furthest reaches of the kingdom, where the minister would endure for a year. No one questioned his reach after that."

"And which Lanfryd was this?" Timlan asked, squinting at the hole. "He must have been a truly small fellow."

Kidu examined a barren tree and snapped off one of its straighter limbs. He started ripping off the small twigs from the branch. "The Twelfth. He was the last of the trueborn Lanfryds. I don't know if dwarf parts work differently but he never mustered any children, but until his death the kingdom prospered. The cell had always remained a threat and a reminder of his type of justice. It's been called the Small Cell ever since."

"Is this on the Earth Chapters exam?" Timlan asked. "I have to say, your knowledge of Kiennese history is impressive, regardless of your reputation."

"What reputation?" Kidu eyed him, finishing the ripping of twigs on his makeshift cane.

"That you care mostly for the games and the Martial Arts," Timlan replied. "I know the Book of the Five must be easy for you. The rest of us struggle with it. You only have one exam left, and it's the only thing standing in your way of being a Peer. Being named a Peer at twenty? That would be impressive."

"Not as young as Mazi."

"No, not as as young as master Mazi," Timlan said. "Seventeen is pretty hard to beat. But he just happens to be the greatest Peer of our time, so no one can hold that against you. He was only three years older than where I am now when he passed all five exams. I'm still looking to pass my second exam."

"You'll get there, I'm sure," Kidu said. "Just follow your own way and it'll be as easy as putting one foot in front of the other."

As Kidu took another step the ground gave way. Kidu shouted as he slipped into the crumbling crevice.

"Kidu!" Timlan shouted. "Kidu!"

There was no sound. Timlan watched as the vulture circled above.

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