"His cloak was dark as the night sky, his dagger keen as the sun is bright, his footfalls silent as snowfall." Uncle Dune sat with his head bowed, hood drawn over that wizened countenance. I could, just barely, see the gleam of his spectacles in the firelight.
We sat in silence for a few moments. His shoulders were slumped slightly, as though weighted with the burden of memory. Every so often, he raised the hewn pipe to his lips and sent smoke spiraling upwards, lit eerily from below. I felt a chill crawl up my spine as I watched. The gates to the past. Are they finally opening? Uncle Dune, as us kids used to call him during our youth, was a tireless caretaker. But that didn't mean his constant mystery and gravity didn't make us a little uneasy. Especially when we found ourselves alone with him, as I now was. An hour ago, he'd swept imperiously into my chambers. "Fifteen years. You're old enough. Come, Minon."
"Why me?" I wanted to ask. "Why are you telling me this? Who are you, really? Why have you fostered us all these years?" Instead, I kept my mouth shut, watching the fire jump in its grate.
Uncle Dune blew a thin stream of smoke from his nostrils. Shifted. When his chair creaked, he turned his head toward me. "Milenoan. That was his real name. He was not truly an orphan, but he spent his boyhood in the slums of Kayron, no more than a gutter rat. Orphanhood was all he knew. We watched him. Espied his daily struggle for life, the way he jumped into vicious brawls for a soggy scrap of bread. You see, if he perished, he wasn't the right choice. If we helped his poor soul, he wasn't the right choice."
Silence. I couldn't handle it. "What do you mean, we? This Melenin, was he..."
Dune snorted, making me jump in my seat, but it was laughter. "Milenoan. Not Melenin. As for your other question, you'll find out soon enough. Milenoan started fighting at age six, once the older rats decided he was too old to waste their time protecting. That's usually how it works. Gutter rats have a code of honor, of sorts: If he's not past five, keep 'im 'live, but if he's six, he's good for the picks. At seven, he was sharpening his own sticks to make spears. Every night, he cradled himself 'round his weapon, tucked away like a stray under an eav. On his fifteenth birthday, he'd already killed nineteen other gutter rats. All of them had initiated. That's when we knew."
The other boys had probably swaddled themselves in their threadbare blankets. Were probably whispering, conjecturing about my fate. The worst fate of sheltees like us was being thrown out by Dune or one of his associates. To become a rat like Milenoan had been.
"You know him as Nightwalker. He earned that title. Those nineteen kills pale in comparison to what he has accomplished since. A queen. Two princes. A host of nobles. Even a king. And yet, the day we swooped in and plucked him from Kayron's filth was a mere ten years ago. He is not even thirty."
"Ten years ago." I whispered it, mind reeling. "Ten years ago I turned--"
"Six. Yes." Dune raised his head and looked at me fully, and the fire shone on his spectacles while smoke leaked from his mouth. He looked for all the world like a demon. "The day Milenoan was drafted into our academy, began his process of becoming Nightwalker, was the day we saved you from becoming good for the picks."
"Your birthday. You share Nightwalker's birthday. It is birth, not blood, that determines who enters the Academy."
My mind was reeling. The heat from the fire seemed oppressive. I wanted to destroy the stone around me, to feel the cool night air. "So that means...am I not an orphan?"
Uncle Dune narrowed his eyes. He leaned forward and placed his smoldering pipe on the table. "You are as sharp as Nightwalker himself. That is good. We worried about how being sheltered for all your boyhood would affect your...prowess." As he looked at me, I fought the tears threatening to build.
Finally, he continued. "It is time, Minon. You are to become the next Nightwalker. Your skills will be crafted by the legend himself."
"Wait. I h-have so many q-questions," I managed. "How c-can--"
"Enough. All will be answered in time." Dune stood, faster than I thought his age could ever allow. His pipe glowed one last time before he swept from the chamber. I sat silently, the tears pouring down my face. And then the figure melted from the darkness, pulling out of its depths like a man emerging from a pool of ink.
I knew immediately who it was.