THE LONE AND LEVEL SANDS || CHAPTER 3

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Submitted Date 05/02/2019
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The building sat at the edge of the trees several yards from the riverbank. It was wooden, two stories, with a few windows in the front and a wood porch and steps leading up to the door. Orange light from a fire glowed through the windows on the first floor, and shadows crossed on the inside. Hanging above the door was a sign written with more strange letters that Tarlos did not know, and yet he could understand them.
Tavern
Tarlos looked around. There was no one around the building. He was standing on a dirt path, wide enough for a cart to pass over, and the lane led up and down the river. Upstream, Tarlos could just make out the shadowed shapes of more buildings in the dark, within the cover of the trees. They were smaller than the tavern, and smoke rose from a few of their chimneys. The smokeless buildings were devoid of any light in the windows.
He climbed the steps and approached the door of the tavern. The handle was strange to him. It was not brass, as were all the door handles in Kesh. This one was round and brown, shiny with use, sticking directly from the wood like a growth. He touched it. It was cool and hard. Metal. He grasped it, feeling the cool metal in his palm, and he tried to move it down; that was how all door handles in Kesh worked. But this one did not slide down. He bit his lip and twisted it instead, and it gave way with no hesitation. There was a click, and the door swung inwards with a low and slow creak.
The smell hit him first. Most of it was smoke from the fire that bellowed in the hearth in the wall. Above the fire was a rack with garments hanging over it, dripping dry. There was the sour smell of alcohol in the air, though it was like no alcohol he had smelled before. The bitter sensation was stronger than the mead and beer he was used to in Kesh. But the aroma of drink reminded him of his dry throat, and his thirst returned stronger than ever.
And then there was the perfume of cooking food. A counter near the back of the tavern was covered in dirty plates, and there were leftover bits of food on them. There was a door behind the counter that swung freely on a hinge, and more whiffs drifted from whatever room was behind it. Meat, vegetables, bread, and fruit were the scents that Tarlos recognized best. There were more, but he had no labels in his mind for them.
The tavern was one big room, and more than a dozen tables were littered around the place. Tarlos guessed that on a busy night, this tavern could hold more than a hundred people. Tonight, however, there were only a few. One man sat in a far corner, farthest from the counter, with a wide-brimmed hat that hung low on his head, shading his face. He was drinking an amber-colored liquid from a large clear cup. Another man and woman sat at a table in the center of the room, and they seemed to be enjoying a plate of meat with what appeared to be small carrots and brown sauce. Tarlos's mouth watered at the sight and smell of it.
A woman stood behind the counter, rubbing a transparent cup with a small towel. She was the only one who looked up at Tarlos as he entered the tavern.
"Welcome," she said, waving the hand that held the towel. She jerked her head to the side. "Come on, have a seat."
Tarlos said nothing as he stepped toward the counter, weaving between the tables. None of the other people looked at him as he passed.
He sat on a cushioned stool and placed his arms on the counter. He looked at the woman and wondered what part of Edorath she came from. Her hair was brown and thick, and it fell in waves over her shoulders. Her nose was small and freckled, and her brown eyes were lined with dark eyelashes. Her lips were full, and her face was round and childlike. She was not as tall as Tarlos, but he felt that she carried with her an air of authority regardless of her physicality.
"Hungry?" she asked. She set the cup and towel to the side and smiled at Tarlos.
He nodded. "More thirsty than hungry. What is that?" He pointed at the strange cup.
She glanced at it. "What?"
"That...cup."
"What do you mean, what is it?"
"What's it made out of?"
She raised an eyebrow as she smiled and flicked the cup with her finger. It gave a small delicate ring, and Tarlos leaned back in surprise.
"They don't have glass where you come from, huh?" she said. "You want some water? You look like you need it."
Tarlos nodded, and the woman held the glass cup under a small metal pipe. She twisted a knob on top, and water gushed into the cup. She handed it to him, and he drank slowly. The water was delicious.
When the cup was half-empty, he paused and stared at it. "Where does this water come from?"
"The spring, a few miles away. Why?"
He shrugged. "Just making sure." But he knew that if the water had come from the Styx, he would be dead already. He gave the empty glass cup back and asked for another, and the woman complied.
"Hungry?" she asked again.
"Yes, I'd like some meat. Do you have boar?"
She laughed, and the laugh was sweet and friendly. It made Tarlos smile, although he was also confused about why she laughed at all.
"How about a burger?" she asked him, then disappeared behind the swinging door.
Tarlos did not know what a burger was, but he waited patiently for it as he sipped at his second cup of water. He chanced a glance behind him at the others. The man drank alone in the corner, and the couple ate their meal.
The woman came back a few minutes later with a white plate. She set it on the counter in front of Tarlos. He stared at the thing she had brought him.
"What is this?" he asked. He poked the top. It felt like bread, but it was wrinkled and covered in small seed-things. There was some kind of meat between the bread, but the other things that were there he was not sure about.
"They don't have burgers there, either?" she replied. She shook her head. "Man, where did you come from? Or I guess the better question would be when?"
Tarlos raised an eyebrow. "I don't understand." He picked up the bread on top of the pile and smelled it. There was yellow and red slime on the other side, and he grimaced at it.
"It's just ketchup and mustard. I hope that's okay." The woman turned to grab another dirty cup and began cleaning it with her small towel. "Who doesn't like ketchup and mustard on their burger? I guess someone who's never had one. Don't eat it like that! Here." She set her cup and towel down and slid the plate over to her side of the counter. "You don't mind cooties, do you?"
Tarlos did not know what a koo-dee was, so he shook his head. The woman grabbed the burger in her hands, keeping the slices of bread on each side of the innards. She brought it to her mouth.
"Like this." She mimed biting and chewing, then gave the burger back to Tarlos.
He grabbed it as she had and brought it to his mouth. It seemed too thick to fit, but he opened his jaws wide and did his best. He bit down, feeling the soft crunch of the green vegetable and the hot juice of the meat, which he guessed was beef. There were other tastes he could not identify, but they blended well, and he chewed and swallowed. His stomach roared with hunger.
"Good, huh?" the woman asked. "Better than McDonald's, anyway." She went back to cleaning her cups.
Tarlos nodded, not sure what she was talking about. He ate his burger in silence. He had no idea how hungry he was until he tasted this food, and he realized he had not eaten anything for several days. Perhaps more than a decan.
The woman set the glass cup on a shelf beside her which held dozens of others. She smiled at Tarlos and narrowed her eyes a bit as she inspected him.
"Are you okay?" she asked.
Tarlos almost laughed. Instead, he returned her smile and shook his head. "No, I'm not okay. Not yet."
She nodded. "You look...well, you don't look good. Usually when people come here, they look refreshed and sort of...refurbished. Know what I mean?"
"Yes." He did not know what refurbished meant, but he understood her. His cheeks were hollow. His face was frost-chilled from the cold nights and sunburned from the hot days, and his arms were thin and tired. And of course, there was the depression. He had carried it with him since Krastos died, and it sat heavily on his shoulders and made him slouch. He knew he must have been a sight.
He finished his burger, and the woman took the plate away to the back room. When she returned, she reached beneath the counter and brought up a green glass bottle. She used a special metal tool to pop the lid off, and she gave it to Tarlos.
"I think you need a beer," she said.
Beer was something Tarlos knew. He drank with eagerness. After a few gulps, he took the bottle from his mouth and looked at it. He smacked his lips.
"This isn't like any beer I've had before."
The woman asked, "Is there a lot of beer where you come from?"
"We invented it."
He drained the bottle, and the woman gave him another. Before she could take the lid off with the metal tool, Tarlos raised a hand. "Please, I'm already very tired."
She smirked and put a hand on her waist. "It's not like you can get drunk or anything. Go on, it's free. In life I'd never turn down a free drink."
Tarlos nodded and took a sip from the second beer. He cracked his neck, which was painfully sore, and he rolled his shoulders to try and relax his muscles. All at once his body reminded him of how exhausted it was, and Tarlos let out a heavy sigh.
He took the tooth from his pocket and held it in his open palm. It hovered a few inches above his hand and spun slowly in the air before dropping.
The woman stared. "That's some trick."
"It's not a trick. I'm a Holder."
The woman seemed nonplussed. She looked at the tooth with fascination, and she did not blink. "Where did you get that?" she asked. She ran a finger through her thick brown hair, pushing a loose strand behind her ear.
"I found it in the desert."
"When?"
"A few days ago, I guess. Maybe a decan. Why?"
She shrugged, still staring at the tooth. "It looks familiar."
"Teeth do look similar."
"I guess. What's a decan?"
"Ten days," he said, and then asked, "What's your name?"
She looked up from the tooth and into Tarlos's eyes. "You're new here," she said. "You have a lot to learn. Wait a minute—" As Tarlos put the tooth back in his pocket, the woman put a hand on the side of her face and her eyes grew wide. "How do you have that with you? You don't get to bring anything with you. That's impossible."
Tarlos licked his lips and took another sip of beer. "Listen," he said. "This is going to be strange to you, but you should know."
The woman nodded. "I know." She gave Tarlos a friendly smile and patted his hand on the counter. "It's not easy for anyone. You come down here, you have no idea where you are or who you are, no idea how you got here. It gets easier with time. Eventually your memories come back and you get to remember your life. But not your name. That's lost forever. Maybe it makes it easier knowing we all had to go through it at some point."
Tarlos looked down at the woman's hand. It reminded him of another hand he liked to hold in the privacy of his room back in Kesh. He pulled his own away. "I see what you are getting at. But there's something else."
The woman nodded her head, "What's that?"
"Well, I'm not dead."
The woman stepped back and made a short noise through her nose that sounded like a laugh. "That doesn't..." She shook her head. "I mean, it usually takes a few days to know that you are dead, and that this is purgatory. It's common not to believe you're dead at first, but...how did you know what I was talking about anyway?"
Tarlos squeezed the glass bottle in his hands. It was cold in his dry cracked palms, and perspiration ran down the neck of the bottle. "Because I know where I am. I've never heard the word purgatory before, but I know what this is. I know you're dead, and they're dead." He threw a finger behind him, indicating those who were eating and drinking at the tables. "But I'm not dead. And if I can help it, I never will be."
The lock of hair behind the woman's ear came loose once more and she pushed it behind her ear again. "I got some bad news for you. You are dead. No one thinks so at first. That's normal, so don't feel bad. You get used to it. Really, being dead isn't all that different from being alive. We still have the same food, and the company isn't bad. Don't believe me? What's your name, then? Can't remember, can you? None of us can. That's part of being dead."
"My name is Tarlos."
The color fell from the woman's face, and she held her tongue between her teeth. She stepped back.
Tarlos continued, "My father was Lakaeus and my mother was Ninsun, king and queen of Kesh. My twin brother was Krastos. They're all dead. I'm not."
The woman said nothing for several seconds. Her eyes were wide and white, and her lips were pressed together in a thin line. She kept her distance from Tarlos. "If that's true, how did you get here?"
"I went through Shar's Mountain."
"Where is that?"
"At the edge of the desert, where the sun rises. It opens up not far from here. Haven't you seen it?"
She shook her head, and the hair behind her ear fell again. "I grew up in Oregon. Newport. There was definitely no desert there. Not on that side of the state, anyway."
It was Tarlos's turn to look confused, and he leaned back a bit in his stool. "Where is Org-en?"
She came back to the counter and to Tarlos, and she placed a hand on his. She gave it two soft pats and said, "I know this is a lot to take in. It's better to just accept it. I don't know how you remember your name and the names of your family members, but..." She looked around the tavern, at the people eating, drinking, and speaking in low tones. "Trust me, it'll all make sense eventually."
"I'm not dead," Tarlos said. "I'll never die."
"Oh? How's that?"
"On the far side of this country, at the end of the Styx, is the Ageless country. I will find the Ageless and discover their secret to immortality."
She nodded. "Well, I've never heard of anyone who lived forever. Except gods. I guess if that's what you feel like would be the best thing..." She shook her head and sighed. "I can't imagine that, though. Living forever. I had a good, full life. I honestly feel satisfied and rested now."
Tarlos took another drink. "If you had been what I've been through, you would say different."
The woman laughed. She threw her head back and let out three huge guffaws. She ran a hand over her face and through her long brown hair.
"I could tell you stories from my life," she said. "Not to discredit what horrible things you've no doubt been through—I'm not saying your life hasn't sucked—but I had myself a doozy. More pain and heartbreak than anyone should ever have to go through."
Tarlos nodded in understanding.
"But," she continued, holding up a finger, "I would never want to live forever. Even if it meant I could right all the wrongs that happened in my life."
Tarlos said, "I don't think you understand, then. Have you ever actually known someone who died? Have you seen their dead husk and tried to shake them awake, knowing they will never breathe again or speak your name?"
The woman stared at him, unblinking, unsmiling. Her eyes glazed over as if her memories were flashing over her face in a river of images, and none were pleasant. She said nothing to Tarlos, but she nodded.
Tarlos sighed. "And yet you say you would not want to right those wrongs or live forever."
"Tarlos..." She turned away for a moment, picked up another glass cup and began cleaning it. "People are born. They live, they die. That's just the way of things. Until the end comes, you should just enjoy your life. Sure, mourn those you lose, but don't lose your own life over them. Eat good food, take hot bubble baths, dance and sing and love..." She inspected the cup in her hands and nodded. "That's what you should be doing."
She set the cup down. "I wish I had done more of that, honestly. It's funny, when it's all over, what you really regret is not doing more of the little things."
Tarlos asked, "What are you trying to say?" His voice came out louder than intended, and the woman drew back in surprise. "My heart is sick for those I've loved, who are gone forever! What you say, it means nothing. I'm going to the Ageless country, and I will find the way to immortality. And I will never die as my mother and brother did."
The few others in the tavern turned their heads to Tarlos as he spoke. He could feel their eyes on him, and he lowered his head. The people turned away and continued their conversations, drinks, and meals.
The woman scratched her ear and raised an eyebrow at Tarlos. "Do what you need to do. A person's goals are important, no matter how misconstrued they are."
Tarlos turned his head and scanned the three people in the tavern, then looked back to the woman. "Is there anyone here who can take me down the river? I've travelled a long way, and I'm exhausted. I'd rather take the trip by boat than hike the rest of the way down the riverside. I have no idea how much farther I have to go."
"You're going to the very end of the river?" the woman asked.
"Yes, to the Ageless country. On the other side of the land of the dead, at the end of the Styx."
She turned her head to look at him sidelong. "You sure you're not from Greece?"
"I don't know what that is."
She nodded and took up her cleaning again. She tipped her head to the side, toward the man drinking out of a mug alone in the corner. "That guy has a boat. He trades up and down the river with the other communities. He knows he doesn't have to, because we all have everything we need, but I guess it gives him something to do. I think it reminds him of his life. Maybe he can take you where you need to go, although I've never heard of that place. But maybe he has."
"What's his name?"
She let out a chuckle. "Very funny."
Tarlos moved to stand up from his seat. The woman grabbed him by the wrist before he could go.
"Woah, woah," she said. "You trynna leave tonight?"
"As soon as possible." He tugged his arm free from her grip.
She smiled with sympathy. "I can promise you he won't want to leave now. People around here tend to sleep at night. You told me yourself you're exhausted. There's a spare bedroom upstairs with a shower. Get a good night's sleep and talk to him in the morning."
Tarlos considered this for a moment. "He'll be here?"
"Oh yeah," she said with a nod. "He's here every day for all three meals, and sometimes more often than that, unless he's on the river. Here." She reached below the counter and brought out a key, handed it to Tarlos. It was the smallest key he had ever seen, half the length of his finger, and it was thin, light, and made of silver. "Take a shower and get some sleep. I know you need it."
Tarlos took the key and nodded. "Fine. This is your tavern, so I'll respect your wish."
She patted his hand one more time. Her eyes were deep with memory and experience, and the freckles on her nose stood out as she blushed. Why she reacted that way, Tarlos had no idea. "I just work here," she said. "Goodnight, Tarlos."

Tarlos climbed the steps to the second floor and found the empty bedroom at the end of the hallway. There was a large bed with thick blankets, a dresser, and a table with a single chair. A door led to somewhere in the back of the room, and Tarlos opened it. He recognized the huge white oval bowl to be a tub, although it was much smaller than he was used to. There was a pipe hanging over it, much like the one the woman used to give him a cup of water, and the knobs on it looked similar. He guessed they worked the same way.
He twisted the knobs as he had seen the woman do, and water gushed from the pipe. Tarlos put his hands beneath it, then withdrew them in surprise. The water was hot. A small lever sat on the top, and he moved it back. The water stopped coming from the pipe and instead came from above, turned into a thousand drops of rain through a piece of metal with several holes.
"Must be the 'shower'," Tarlos said to himself. Feeling the warmth of the water, he stripped his clothes off and climbed into the bath. He ran his hands through his matted hair, combing it with his fingers. Not seeing any soap, he scrubbed himself with his hands as best he could. The water became thick and muddy, and it spiraled down the drain. His neck and nose pained in the water, having been sunburned worse than the rest of his body. After it was too late, he wondered if this water came from the same spring the woman had spoken about, or if it came from the river. But if it was from the Styx, he would be dead already.
He twisted the knobs the other way, and the water stopped its flow. He squeezed the water from his hair as best he could. Hanging on the rack on the wall was a blue towel, and he used it to pat himself dry. The towel was warm and soft, softer than any towel he had ever used.
A sort of fold-up knife sat on a basin beside the bath, and he picked it up and tested the edge with his thumb. It was razor-sharp. He ran a hand across his cheeks and chin, feeling the stubble that was growing too long. He used the knife to shave, and he had no more stubble.
The bed beckoned to him, and he climbed into the clean fluffy sheets. The mattress was more comfortable than any bed he had slept on in his life, and the pillow was a cloud beneath his head. He was asleep in less than a minute.
Tarlos woke to the aroma of food cooking. He pulled his dirty shirt on, and his filthy trousers, then laced up his sandals. His hair had been damp when he got in bed, and now it stood out in every direction. He wet it in the bathroom and tamed it as best he could and rinsed his face to wake himself up.
Downstairs, the tavern was filled with dozens of people. They all spoke loudly and excitedly, laughing and moving from table to table, sharing food and drink. Tarlos stopped at the bottom of the stairs. He wondered how many people like this lived here. At a glance, he guessed there were at least a hundred people this morning.
"Tarlos!" called a familiar voice. "Good morning! How'd you sleep?"
Tarlos held up a hand in greeting to the woman behind the counter. She was dealing out plates of steaming food, and the smell made Tarlos's mouth water and stomach grumble. On the counter, there were plates of bread and boiled eggs, and stacks of what looked like thin bread. There were pitchers of juice, coffee, tea, and milk. Tarlos never imagined that there would be such things in the dead country.
"Hungry?" asked the woman. She waved him over, and Tarlos approached the counter. A man with short brown hair and a long nose smiled at Tarlos and moved aside for him.
"Heard you're the new guy," said the man. His eyes were green. Tarlos had never seen eyes that color.
"I'm just passing through," Tarlos said.
"That's what she tells me." The man clapped Tarlos on the back, and Tarlos's eyebrows knit together. "Well, I gotta get back," the man said. "I hope we get to officially meet soon." He nodded at Tarlos, and Tarlos gave him a weak smile in return. The man grinned at the woman and said, "Later." He left them, disappearing through the crowd.
"Who's that?" Tarlos asked the woman.
"Oh, just a friend from before," she said. "So, what'll it be? Eggs? Bacon? Pancakes? French toast?"
"Um..." Tarlos scanned the plates with the food, recognizing only a few dishes. "What do you like best?"
"Waffles. But we don't have any today, sorry. I'd recommend French toast and raspberry syrup." She made him a plate and poured him a cup of dark coffee. The cup was not glass; it was white and—Tarlos guessed—made of clay, like the cups in Kesh.
"Cream, sugar?" she asked.
Tarlos shook his head, not understanding what she meant, and the woman pushed the plate across the counter to him and handed him an eating utensil. He held it in his fist and gave her a questioning look.
"Man, you really are from the Bronze Age," she said. "It's a fork. You use it to eat with, so you don't get your hands messy. Like this." She took another fork and pretended to eat with it. "I'd really like to know about your homeland and your life, when you have the time to talk."
Tarlos choked down the French toast. It was entirely too sweet for breakfast food, but he did not wish to be rude. He finished his plate before moving to the coffee so it was cool enough to drink.
"Is that man here?" he asked.
"The boatman? I think so." The woman stood on her toes and craned her neck to see over the crowd. "Yep, I see him. He's at his usual table. Looks like he chose pancakes today. He always chooses biscuits and gravy when we have it."
Tarlos thanked the woman for the food, and she took his plate and cup away.
The tavern was crowded, with at least four people to each table, all of them speaking and eating. The place was filled with the sound of utensils on plates, beverages being poured, conversation mixed with laughter. The only table that was not full was in the corner of the tavern, and the boatman sat there alone, poking at his food.
Tarlos navigated his way through the tables, avoiding the chairs that were pushed too far from them, making narrow gaps for Tarlos to squeeze through. Hardly anyone looked up at him, and those who did gave him a friendly smile.
The man who ate alone was wearing a brown hat with a wide brim, and thick-soled boots made of leather. His shirt was plain blue and buttoned down the front, and his trousers were tan and worn at the knees. He bent over his food, the wide brim of his hat covered his face. Tarlos approached slowly, and he cleared his throat when he reached the table.
The man raised his head, and Tarlos was met with pale blue eyes. Tarlos had seen blue eyes only once before, and something painful tried to rear its head in his mind. He pushed it away. There was stubble on the man's cheeks and chin. His mustache was thick and long, curled up at the ends. He nodded a greeting at Tarlos.
"Have a seat, if you want," he said with a gruff voice. Tarlos took the seat across from him, and the man continued poking at his pancakes and eggs.
"I hear you have a boat," said Tarlos.
The man raised his head once more and pushed his plate away. "I hate eggs. Don't care much for pancakes, neither. I always get biscuits and gravy when I can, but this ain't heaven yet. Yeah, I got a boat. Why?"
"I need to get down the river." Tarlos folded his hands together on the table.
The man sucked his teeth. "Mm-hm. Nothin down there."
"Have you ever been?"
The boatman shook his head. "No, but I been far enough, I guess. Far enough to see that there's no point in going any further."
"I need to get to the end of the river. I have business in the country on the other side of this one.
"You ain't got no business anywhere but here, son," the man grumbled. He picked up a cup of coffee and drank half of it. He sighed and licked his lips, then ran a finger across the handlebars of his mustache. "This is where the good Lord sent you, and you'd do best to accept it and continue your existence in peace. Ain't no use dreaming about what else is out there. You're dead. What else is there to know?"
"I'm not dead."
The man smirked. "That's what we all think at first. There's no shame in it if you're new here. But it's best to accept it as quick as you can. If you put it off too long, it gets real difficult to let it sink in later. And it always sinks in."
"My name is Tarlos," he said with a stern face. "I came to this country through Shar's Mountain, I'm not dead, and I need to get down that river."
The man raised his eyebrows. For a while, he said nothing. He stared at Tarlos from the shadow of his hat's brim, studying him. After several moments, the man said in a softer voice, "Way is dangerous. The river isn't meant to be floated down by the likes of us. It's for the Reaper, only."
"I understand that you float it regardless."
The man nodded. "Yeah, well, I never was one for keeping the rules. They say the water is poison, but that's never been a concern for me. Might be for you, though."
"It might."
The man stuck his little finger into his mouth and picked something from his teeth, then flicked it away. He looked past Tarlos, into the crowd, and his eyes stayed fixed to something for a moment. Before Tarlos could turn to see what the man was staring at, the boatman spoke.
"You say your name's Tarlos. Are you sure about that? It's no name I've ever heard before."
Tarlos nodded. "Tarlos, son of Lakaeus, king of Kesh."
The man looked back to whatever he was staring at, and this time Tarlos turned to follow the man's gaze. A small woman with olive skin and black hair, and almond-shaped eyes like those who lived in the Southern Isles, stood reverently at the counter, speaking to the tavern woman. Tarlos looked back to the boatman and saw that he was still staring at the small woman.
"Did you know her when you were alive?" Tarlos asked.
The boatman snapped his gaze back to Tarlos and cleared his throat. He finished his coffee and slammed the empty cup down on the table. He wiped his mustache.
"Listen," he said, "I've been down the river once, not all the way but further than anyone else, I think. I told myself I'd never go again. But..." His eyes flicked up one more time to the counter. The man sighed.
"What?" Tarlos said.
"I never heard of Kesh. And I never met someone here who remembered their name, neither, but it seems like you're telling the truth." He cracked his knuckles, and his knee began to bounce beneath the table. "What the hell, I'm dead anyway. Let's go before I change my mind."
The boat was long, slender, and flat. A box sat on top large enough for them to stand up in, with a bunk, a chair, and a wash basin. Ropes and posts were strewn about the deck, ready to be put to use if there was anything to ship up or down the river.
"Hardly ever go down," the boatman told Tarlos as he untied the mooring line from a small wooden post on shore. He gave the boat a shove out into the water, then jumped aboard as the craft floated away. "Hardly anyone in that direction, anyway. I mostly go upriver. Pain in the ass, really. Gotta push against the current with a pole, and it does get mighty tiring after a while. I always thought that after I died I wouldn't feel tired anymore. I guess that's what I get for being philosophical. Should be fun, though, for the most part. At least I ain't alone this time."
The man sat beside the rudder and steered the boat downstream. Tarlos took a seat on the deck and leaned against the wall of the box-room. He played with the tooth in his pocket.
"So, Tarlos," said the man. "I never heard that name before, and I been everywhere, or pretty much everywhere. America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, even as far as India in my early years. Where are you from?"
Tarlos took the tooth from his pocket and held it in his palm. "I've never heard of any of those places. I'm from Kesh, in the Fertile Valley."
"Never heard of that, neither. Is it nice there?"
"I suppose."
The tooth floated a few inches above Tarlos's hand and flipped around two or three times before settling back down again. He closed his fist over it and sighed.
"What on Earth?" said the man. He let go of the rudder for a moment to take a step toward Tarlos. He lifted his chin and stared down at Tarlos's closed fist. The rudder turned slightly and the boat jerked. He went back to steady it. "Was that thing just floating?"
Tarlos nodded. "I'm a Holder."
"A what? Did you make that move?"
Tarlos lifted his eyebrows. "You don't know what a Holder is?"
The boatman shook his head. "Enlighten me."
Tarlos took a moment to organize his thoughts, then spoke with reverence. "I've been able to do it since I was twelve. I inherited it from my father, and he got it from his mother, on and on since the first people. The firstborn always inherits the Power."
"Okay," the man said. He tipped his hat back and scratched his forehead. "I guess I've seen stranger things."
"There are four Powers," Tarlos said. He spoke softly now, not really caring whether the man was listening or not. "Space, Creatures, Mind, and Time. But the Power of Mind has been lost since—"
"What does the time power do?" the boatman interrupted.
Tarlos glanced at him and shrugged. "Control time. Speed it up, slow it down. But I don't think they can make it run backwards."
"Hang on," snapped the man. "You're telling me there are people from your world who can slow time." It was more of a statement than a question.
"Yes."
"I'll be damned," he mumbled. "I knew a bunch of people who could do that."
"Do what?" Tarlos mumbled. His eyes closed as he leaned back against the wall.
"Slow time. On my honor, I knew em."
Tarlos opened his eyes. The boatman was grinning, staring off across to the south shore, mindlessly steering the boat at the rudder, bobbing it up and down in the water.
Tarlos said, "You lie."
The man took his eyes from the shore and looked at Tarlos. His smile diminished a bit, the ends of his mustache coming down. "Excuse me?"
"You could not have known people who could slow time. There is only one in each generation. Perhaps you could have known two, a parent and a child, or even also a grandparent. How many did you know?"
"Dozens," the man said. "They were called samurai. They had this thing inside them they called chi, and they used it to slow down or pause time for as long as their strength would let them. I remember there was this one samurai, older than dirt, who could stop time for days, or longer, I don't know. He used it to meditate for hours and hours without losing a second in the real world, and he'd read every book ever written, I'm sure. The man knew more than was good for anyone. Hey, can I see that?" He pointed at Tarlos's pocket.
"The tooth?"
"Yeah."
Tarlos handed it to him, and the boatman held the tooth close to his squinting eyes. His tongue darted between his lips.
"I swear I seen this before," he said with a low voice. "Or at least something just like it." He gave it back. "Pretty, though."
"Strange," said Tarlos. "The woman at the tavern said the same thing."

The boat floated along the Styx quietly and smoothly. The man talked and Tarlos listened. At least, he pretended to listen. Most of the time Tarlos was sure that the man spoke only to hear the sound of his own voice, and that he did not care whether Tarlos listened or not.
It must be lonely for him, floating the river all the time by himself. He's his only entertainment.
The man had packed dried meat, bread, and water. There were boxes of fizzy drinks, which the tavern woman gave Tarlos before they left. He did not care much for the bubbly flavored water, as it was too sweet and the bubbles hurt his throat and nose. The boatman had one every hour or so and belched his approval upon completion. By the fourth day, half the boxes of the drinks were gone.
The first time the man threw an emptied drink cup—which was made from a very thin metal that the boatman called "soda"—overboard into the water, Tarlos watched it land in the Styx and begin to melt. It sizzled and boiled, and the metal merged with the water around it and mixed with the Styx, dissolved forever.
"Why doesn't the boat dissolve?" Tarlos asked.
"Nothing makes sense here," the boatman replied.
"What would happen if we touched it?"
The man shrugged as he cracked open another drink. "We'd die, probably."
"But you're already dead."
The boatman swallowed, belched, smacked his lips. "There's dead, and there's dead, and there's dead."
At the end of the fifth day, as the sun set on the dead country, Tarlos realized that he had not heard the boatman's voice in well over an hour. This was strange to him, and he opened his mouth to ask if everything was all right. But the boatman caught his gaze before Tarlos could speak, and he raised a quick finger to his lips.
"You'll wanna be quiet," the man whispered, so softly that Tarlos almost did not hear him.
Tarlos mouthed the word why, and the man pointed downstream. The sky was growing dark, and Tarlos had to strain to see where the man was pointing. But the moon was at full face and in view, and the landscape was shrouded in shadow and getting blacker. Tarlos moved to ask the man why it was so dark when he saw that the light of the moon and the stars stopped above the water ahead of them, just about head level. An invisible bubble covered the Styx and its shores, not allowing in any natural light. On the left bank, Tarlos could make out trees and rocks in the fading light. On the right, he stared into the face of nothingness. Only the faint outline of a building could be seen through the veiled darkness.
The boat came closer as they made their way down the river, and the building enveloped in darkness neared. Tarlos could now see how large the building was. It was the size of the stone temple in Kesh or bigger. It was made of stone, and the back of it merged with a rocky hill behind, giving the impression that the building continued on underground for an unknown distance. Tarlos could almost make out the thick green vines crawling up and clinging to the walls.
The boatman once again held a finger to his lips and held the rudder steady. Tarlos's breath was caught in his chest, and he made no sound as they passed.
Then he heard it. He thought it was a wounded animal crying out for help but only signaling predators of an easy meal. But the more he listened, the more it was apparent that it was no animal.
It was the sound of moaning. A mournful weeping that hung heavily in the air. The intense emotional and psychological pain was palpable. It reminded Tarlos of a mother crying for a killed child, or a son waiting for a father who will never return from war. It embodied the pain a man would feel if he could look back on his life and see all the missed opportunities that would have made his life a happy one. It stirred in Tarlos all the hurt he may have caused and the people who suffered because of his selfishness. It was anguish that would never end. And whatever it was that made the noise, it knew its torment was eternal.
Tarlos felt his eyes water. The sound stank in his ears and was sour in his mind. The boatman held fast to the rudder and wiped a tear from his cheek. Tarlos said nothing to him until the boat had floated well past the dark bubble and the building was invisible behind a bend in the Styx. The weeping and groaning faded, and Tarlos sighed in relief. His breath was shaky, like the breath of one who had been crying for several minutes.
The boatman mumbled, "That's why I never come this way. I guess if there's a Hell, that's it. It's some wonder I didn't end up there, and you better believe I thank God every day that I didn't."
"I think I've heard of that place," said Tarlos. "Although I never really put much effort into imagining what it looked like. And I suppose a part of me never believed it existed at all. The High Priestess in Kesh called it the House of Dust. I think..." He swallowed a lump in his throat. "I think that's where my father is. And it'll probably be where I end up if I don't find the Ageless."
The boatman raised an eyebrow at him. "How d'you figure?"
Tarlos shrugged with one shoulder. "It's a long story."
"Well, we got a ways to go, yet. I'm up for hearing a long story if you're up for telling one."
Tarlos sat for several minutes in silence. The boatman did not press him to speak. At length, Tarlos nodded and took a seat in his usual place against the wall of the boat. After another moment's consideration, he reached for a fizzing beverage and cracked it open using the tab on the top of the strange metal cup. He began:
"I suppose I should first explain that when my father, Lakaeus, was still a prince, he wasn't permitted to marry until his father, king Hestos, was dead..."
 

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