Homecoming, part two

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They were standing on a glassy platform. Arthur couldn't place the sense of disorientation he experienced. It was as if he'd slept, and even though he understood they must have jumped he had no memories of how it had happened, only fragments of a dark dream. He shook his head and turned to Escha.

"We are going back to Keen, I think," Harbend said. "I am sorry, but the taleweaver must publicly be known to be safe before Keen sends soldiers to the Sea of Grass."

Arthur nodded absently. He needed to go there as well. With his reputation he might force the Terran Federation to stop any escalation of their military intervention. Even if it meant being forced back to Earth.

Escha grimaced. "You are going back to Keen. My kind is not welcome there."

That was as clear a farewell as it could be to Arthur. "What will you do now?" he asked uncomfortably.

Both men looked at each other for a long time, and Arthur could feel that Harbend beside them didn't dare breaking the silence.

"After I have jumped you to Chach?"

"You don't have to jump us from here, but yes, after we part ways." Should have known he knew De Vhatic all the time, Arthur reflected.

"I will..." Escha hesitated, and then he grinned, face shining with genuine happiness for the first time in months. "With the money I receive after Trai, blessed be his memory, I'll become my own master, and you, Lord Garak, will pay the full fee for the transport to Chach."

"I would have it no other way," Harbend answered. "Master Escha."

"I'll become Escha er Khanai, no longer slave, and with the money you pay me I'll buy myself a slave to do my biddings and train."

Arthur looked at him in dismay.

"Lord Wallman. This is not Earth, nor Terra, or what you call your strange worlds of home. This is Khanati, and what's proper here is what I'll do. I've seen for myself how those you'd call free are treated."

Arthur guessed what he meant. "But that was people from Ri Khi demanding those executions. I saw nothing of the sort in Keen," he protested weakly.

"What's proper in Keen is not the rule followed in Ri Khi, and it's not the rule in Khanati. Maybe one day the rules will change in Khanati as well, but until then I'll take my responsibility as a free man."

"You still haven't told me what you're going to do." Arthur said, unwilling to continue in the direction the conversation was taking.

"I'll teach. I'll teach those with the gift how to use it, but more importantly, I will teach them when to use it."

Arthur clasped Escha's hands. "I don't have to like all ways of Khanati, but I respect you. Always know that! I expect you to take better care of your slaves than we did of our fellow traders that night."

"Always."

At least Harbend had the decency to look uncomfortable, Arthur thought. All of them needed to learn something from their experiences, or else the cost would have been in vain.

"What happens now?" Arthur asked and shook some of the dizziness away. He gave Harbend a suspicious look. "What happened?" Arthur asked again.

"We jumped," Harbend answered, but he averted his eyes in a way Arthur didn't like.

"There were soldiers from my home back there." Arthur frowned. There was something he didn't remember. "It was my responsibility forcing them to stop."

"It was Lord Garak's to prevent you from dying while trying," Escha interjected. "The decision was taken from you. You have no reason to put blame on yourself for something you couldn't change."

Arthur looked at Escha, and the Khar responded with a cold stare.

"You are a taleweaver," Harbend started. "Your life belongs to the world now."

Arthur locked eyes with his friend. "No," Arthur said.

No, not any more. I didn't travel this road just to become the richest slave in the known universe again. Free, finally free as I have always been. The shackles were my own doing. I've lived a coward's life, but no more.

Tension ran away from him like a dam breaking and years of frustration broke forth. He wanted to lash out but then revelation followed realization. The shackles were mine and mine alone. Freedom carries responsibility. What right do I have to punish others for my own cravenness? He sighed and straightened his back.

"I'm a taleweaver, but my life belongs to me alone. You can't make me Weave, only I can." He put a finger to Harbend's chest. "I choose when to Weave and when not to. I choose to become what I am, not you and not the world. That choice is mine alone."

Harbend bowed his head in understanding - and respect. "You are right. I apologize. Can we undo what we have done?"

"I have as little right to force Khar Escha to jump us back to Belgera as you have to force me to Weave. There will be no undoing. Are we going home now?"

Harbend and Escha exchanged glances of relief. They must have shared something Arthur wasn't part of.

"If you want to go home I'll jump you there by the jump towers. Well, not your home, Lord Wallman," Escha said smiling.

Arthur grinned in response. "That would be no mean feat, but no, I'm quite satisfied if you can bring us as close to Verd as possible."

"The jump tower at Friedhafen will be fine," Harbend muttered.

"Do you mind if we stay for a meal in Ira? I've jumped far and would need something to strengthen me on the way."

"Not at all," Arthur said. He had no idea where Ira was. He had no idea where he was at the moment for that matter. A day or so over some maps when he was back in Verd seemed appropriate.

"No problem. It's not like it'll delay our journey much," Harbend said. There was still something in his voice making Arthur look at his friend.

"What is it?"

"The caravan. All the people. We deserted them in the middle of a battle."

Arthur thought for a while before he answered. "Uncomfortable as it is they still have to fend for themselves."

"But they may not know. There are people in danger there right now."

Arthur finally understood what had made Harbend getting second thoughts. "Nakora makes a living from being in danger. You can't take that away from her."

An expression of dismay spread over Harbend's face - as if he'd been caught stealing candy in a shop. It amused Arthur that Harbend believed no one had noticed the growing relationship between Nakora and him.

"Gentlemen, if you are ready."

They both broke their conversation at Escha's words. He smiled at them, and they were surrounded by the feeling of nothingness again. Four times this was repeated and then Escha jumped them down from the glassy platform they had arrived on.

Arthur gazed at their surroundings. The sun shone from a clear morning sky, and it was already hot. He could see a walled town some distance away, and a well-trodden path led there. There was no telling him where they were, and he gave up on asking. A name would mean nothing to him without a map, and even with one it would only tell him the relative distance from Verd. Once again he felt the need to learn more about the world, and a growing suspicion a lifetime of learning wouldn't suffice grew in him.

"Gentlemen, from here we walk. They don't take kindly to strangers who jump into town," Escha said.

Arthur smiled. "Seems to be the way everywhere."

The walk was the first opportunity for him to calm down since their hasty departure from Belgera, and long before they had arrived at the city walls he discarded the heavy winter clothes he'd wore for so long. Wherever this was it had to be far south from Braka. It was good to be outdoors in the warmth. He'd almost forgotten what it was like, and with spirits rising he entered the town.

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