There simply were no words.
The peppered gray stone was covered in letters, each character carved deep enough to survive the wind and rain of ten centuries. They formed perfect, evenly spaced lines from left to right and top to bottom. The first one rested exactly six inches from the top, and the last stopped six inches from the ground where the long, bent grass couldn’t reach. On one line, the letters faced forward, on the next they faced backward, pointing the reader unarguably toward a destination as they wound their way back and forth. Purpose in every mark.
But there were no words. And Veren had read it a hundred times – forwards, backwards, up, and down, in every order he could imagine – just to prove it to himself. He had even spent a few days reading out loud, driving himself hoarse on syllables he had not been raised to speak, listening for anything that sounded like sense.
“So, it’s in code,” Michal said, behind him. Idly chewing through his lunch, he sat on the back of a ruined stone that might have once been, might still be, something priceless.
Veren wished he could say that Michal was distracting, that having someone peer over his shoulder was too much pressure for the delicate work, and he would figure it out if he had an hour to himself. The truth was, he had only noticed the other man and the piece of history his rear end was disrespecting for half a day before the mystery swallowed him down.
“Maybe,” he said. “Or it’s a very permanent statement about a dead man’s mental health.”
Michal paused a moment, figuring that out. “You think a crazy person wrote this? It’s too perfect.”
Veren tilted his head, considering, not for the first time, that this might be a problem to be solved sideways. “You need to sit down to dinner with the deranged more often, if you still think that mad and meticulous are opposites.”
Michal paused again. “I had dinner with you last night.”
He almost didn’t notice the silence that followed, until it stretched and he suddenly felt it like a weight in his stomach. Blinking, he could almost hear the click of Michal’s thoughts, calculating the truth of what Veren had just told him.
Michal was not stupid. Maybe he entertained himself making the world believe it, or liked the secrets that stumbled into his path when the folk around him could feel the sharp edge of his mind. Perhaps he just preferred doing business in the blunt way that most people assumed when met with a thick skull. But he had found too many things for Veren, with too little information, for Veren to believe the man was an idiot.
And like most men of his type, he viewed history as a prettier treasure box than most, just waiting for him to come, crack it open, and gather the gold. Veren could convince him that this precious wall of stone was one man’s obsessive argument with his own mind, and Veren would not lose interest, but Michal would.
Veren dropped his gaze to the ground, for a moment. Then he turned slowly to face the other man.
He considered, for a moment, telling Michal to get off the ancient rock that might have once been the corner-stone of a someone’s home.
“We might need a code-breaker,” he said instead.
Michal nodded almost immediately. “I know a good one.”
“He’ll have to know all four ancient languages,” Veren told him. “Or it won’t do him any good to look at this.”
“Her,” Michal corrected him absently. “And a code’s a code, isn’t it?”
“Well, yes,” Veren said. “But I imagine your friend will agree that she can break any code you like, but she won’t know she’s broken it unless she can make sense of the pieces.”
“The wall’s in Darin,” Michal said. “Why does she need to know Kretic, Lebaran, and Sipri?”
Veren only blinked once at how easily he listed them. “They liked to borrow from each other. The alphabet is Darin, but just using the wrong letters would be an easy way to strengthen a code in Kretic, Lebaran, or Sipri.”
Michal hesitated. “You can’t make anything easy, can you?” He pushed himself off the stone, muttering something else under his breath. It sounded like a string of curses, but when he looked at Veren again, there was a glint his eye. “I guess I’ll go dig someone up.”