Every step through the town square felt like it was weighed down with lead. Jason treaded through the crowds, toward the Ghoti Building. He hadn't told anyone about his decision yet, not even his mother. Master Poe was the one who made the offer, so he would be the first to know. Jason just wasn't sure he would be able to say it. He had spent most of the night trying to think of the right words, even writing them down, only to tear them up in the end.
He stopped and took a deep breath before opening the door.
The lobby inside was full of witches using their auras to work through their files. A clock—one of the designs that had made Master Poe his wealth—hung on the wall. One of the witches looked up and saw him standing there, then whispered something into thin air.
A set of doors on the opposite side swung open. Master Poe spread his arms wide. "Jason, welcome. I've been expecting you. Right this way." He turned around and walked back into his office, expecting Jason to follow.
And Jason did. It was better to talk without anyone listening.
The doors swung shut behind him.
"Coffee?" Master Poe said. "Or tea? Or… I forget, are you old enough for beer?"
"I'm fourteen," Jason said. "But I'll take a coffee."
Master Poe poured two cups and served one to Jason.
Jason blew on his. "Master P—"
"Ah ah ah." Master Poe wagged his finger. "We've known each other long enough for you to say who I really am."
Jason nodded. "Father." He watched Master Poe's smile. Easy for him, when he couldn't remember his own son's age. Jason had only met the man who called himself Master Poe a week ago. Until then, he'd only ever known the father of his brother and sister, whom Mother had married when Jason was three, and who had died when Jason was nine. But Jason had never known his own father. And no one knew where he'd gone after Ornhuist. "I've been doing some thinking."
"As have I," Master Poe said. "We have a long journey ahead of us. We're heading for a colder climate, so I'm thinking we should stop at a tailor to get you a new coat. I have a friend down in—"
"No?" Master Poe set his coffee down. "What do you mean?"
"I'm not going." This wasn't at all how Jason rehearsed it—it was more elaborate in his head—but now that the opportunity had arisen, he had to say it. "I'm staying here."
Master Poe's thick brows furrowed. "You can't be serious."
"I am. I'm fine with the apprenticeship I have with the blacksmith. It may not be glamorous, but it's important. And I think Mother needs me more than you do."
"What does she think?"
"I haven't told her yet. She's still as enthusiastic about this as you are. But I think she'll understand."
Master Poe lowered and shook his head. "You understand where I'm taking you, right?"
"Of course," Jason said. "To Halleant, to learn your clockworking methods. But look—these are already blacksmith's hands. They're not made for something that delicate."
"Oh, Jason. You think I'm only trying to make you my apprentice?" Master Poe stood back up. "Jason, you're my son. I don't want to be a mystery to you. I'm doing this so we can get to know each other. I may have helped bring you into the world. But I can't truly be your father unless I'm a part of your life."
"That's just it. You've never been a part of my life. You're my father, yes, but I don't really know who you are." Jason took a seat opposite his father. "All this time, I thought you were dead. We all did. So many people died at Ornhuist… So many of my friends don't have fathers. Now all of a sudden, you turn up alive, and well, and rich. So where have you been all this time? How did you survive?"
"Has your mother never told you?" Master Poe said.
Master Poe stood gazing out the window. "You want to know how I survived the Battle of Ornhuist? The truth, Jason, is that I am a coward."
Jason sank into his chair a little. It couldn't be…
Master Poe continued, "At Ornhuist, we were up against an army with a line of Effka witches. There are many myths about the Effka, but one of them is true. They are most definitely ruthless in battle. We had one witch. So the night before, I deserted."
Jason leaned forward in his seat. All his life, he had heard the Battle of Ornhuist mentioned in hushed, mournful whispers. Out of General Einsley's ten thousand troops, only a few hundred survived the slaughter, and of those, only a few dozen without injuries. "You were a fugitive."
"A lowly deserter from a battle that should never have been fought. I had to build a new identity, a new life. I had to learn a new trade—and even I'm surprised at how well I took to clockwork. With General Einsley still around, I could hardly show my face here."
"I… I think I do understand. I had no idea. Escaping Einsley…" When that brute was alive, he had Ornhuist deserters hunted down like wild rodents, blaming them for his own defeat. One such man had encountered Einsley's troops right across the road from Jason's home. Sometimes Jason could still hear that rifle burst. "You're lucky to be alive."
"You don't see me as a coward?"
Jason had no answer to that. "Cowardice" wasn't the right word, and neither was "courage." The thought had crossed his mind before that his father was a deserter, but that made it even more surprising he was still alive. "Why come back now?"
"Oh, in a way I've been back for a while. Your mother has been able to save quite a bit for a widow raising three children, hasn't she?"
Jason had never thought about it. Never even questioned it. Mother had never said anything. But Father was right. They were never hungry, never wanting for clothes, never concerned about rent. "You…"
"Even if she did remarry, I knew I could trust her," Master Poe said. "She did think I was dead, after all. But it was only recently that I believed I could trust this city. Now that General Einsley is safe in the ground, I can simply be Master Poe. I can be your father. But only if you'll let me, Jason."
Jason looked up at his father, and saw the ache in his eyes, and knew he meant every word. But could he really leave all this behind? "What about Mother?"
"I offered to bring her as well, along with the children," his father said. "We had a lengthy discussion about it, and she told me she's more comfortable here. It's the only home she's ever known. She's more concerned with your opportunities. She'll still have the other children, and her job in the blacksmith's shop, and I'll continue to send her my contribution. You can write and visit at any time. She wants you to go, doesn't she? We're not abandoning her."
"Still," Jason said. "I can't help feeling like I would be. This is the only home I've ever known, too."
"Of course." Master Poe stroked his chin. "Though I'm sure that when you see Halleant, you'll never want to leave."
"It just feels like too much too soon."
Master Poe nodded. "Are you saying you still wish to stay?"
"I don't know. If you'd explained sooner, I…"
"You understand why, right?"
Jason did. There was still enough of a stigma against Ornhuist deserters, even after Einsley, even after the amnesty, even knowing how awful Ornhuist truly was. You still didn't go blabbing about it in public. "I think so." Jason rubbed his head. "Maybe I could go with you for a little while. Maybe… until Silver Day? If I want to stay by then, I'll stay. If I want to leave…"
The smile returned to Master Poe's face. "Nearly six weeks. You think you'll have your decision by then?"
"I think so," Jason said. "And even if I come back here, no reason we can't write and visit, right?"
"Of course." Master Poe rubbed his eyes. "Forgive me. You're turning out to be quite a man, Jason. Just let me know if there's anything else."
"Just give me a chance to tell Mother."
"Go. Quickly. The train leaves in"—Master Poe glanced at the clock on the wall—"one hour."
"Thank you." Jason rushed to the door, and ran on feet as light as a feather back to his mother's home.