Published in Darklaw
Copyright © Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Epic fantasy | 2017
“THIS COULDN’T WAIT until dinner?” asked Kami when she arrived at Avestine’s quarters.
She accepted a cup of hot tea, and then sat down at the table. She sipped the sweet brew made from licorice root until she noticed Avestine wasn’t speaking. She set the cup down. “What did you want to talk to me about?”
Sitting back, elbows resting on the chair arms, Avestine tapped her lip with her fingers. “I’m going to Koledoon.”
“Because of the show? I know you admired their riding.”
“That wasn’t just a show.” Avestine left her seat and began to pace, her eyes aflame. “Those riders, what they could do with arrows. I’ve never seen anything like it. I need to see how I can use them.”
“Yes, they were exciting, but are arrows going to stop legions? Men in armor?”
“I have one of their bows and some bolts. I’ve been thinking of ways to improve the range and power. Imagine if a man could shoot from hundreds of paces away. Imagine if we could send hundreds of them to hide in forests around the cities where the legions couldn’t go.”
“You estimated Avestar has as many as twenty-thousand infantry and another five-thousand horses at Ureth Mourning. How do a handful of tricksters shooting sticks from horseback matter?”
“Use your imagination! I would think you of all people could see the possibilities.”
“Possibilities for slaughter? Why would I be good at imagining that?”
Avestine hesitated before saying, “I want you to come with me.” She tried to sense Kami’s reaction, but as fast as Kami was learning to hear the thoughts of others, she was also learning to block others from her own.
“Because I’m asking.”
“How long will you be gone? I have work at the temple.”
“Yes, the temple.”
“Koledoon is even farther from Featherwood,” said Kami. “Besides, I’d be useless; a burden even.”
“I won’t allow—” Avestine didn’t finish her thought. “Why do we argue like this?” She reached a hand to Kami’s shoulder. Placing her hand against Kami’s cheek, she reached to kiss her.
Kami drew away. “I need time.”
“Time for what?”
“To decide what I want.”
“What you want?” Avestine threw her hands in the air. “How much time does it take to decide to live?”
“Is that a threat?”
“I want you with me in Koledoon.”
“No?” Avestine took hold of Kami, but someone seized Avestine from behind. She turned on the intruder with the rage to kill. The hilt of a concealed dagger slid into her sweaty palm.
Rook flipped her over his shoulder and the dagger clattered across the room. Avestine was spitting curses as Rook dragged her from the room.
Kami waited, bracing, but when she believed Avestine wasn’t returning, she left the room. She hurried through the corridors. She thought she heard Avestine’s voice, so she went through a door that brought her into the courtyard.
The cool air relaxed her.
After a walk around the lower garden, she returned to the palace. The corridors were silent, except for her own footfalls on the stone and an occasional guard shifting at his post. When Kami reached her room, Rook was waiting at her door.
“I thought you’d be dead,” said Kami.
Rook pursed his lips and reported, “She threatened to have me fucked by her horse while licking every sweaty ball in the palace. She’s probably planning it right now.”
“Why did you stop her?”
“Come.” Rook began to walk away, and Kami followed.
He led her back to the courtyard and selected a bench. After he sat down he said, “She’s had men watching you. You already know that. It’s hard for anyone to keep secrets from you.” Despite his thick tunic, a cool wind caused Rook to cross his arms. They sat near a circle of white and yellow flowers. “As many years as I’ve lived among your kind, you still confuse me.”
Rook ran his forearms across his hair, leaving the graying sides curling behind his deformed ears. Kami had never had such a clear and close look before. “You confuse me, too, Rook. How can you love someone who treats you so badly?”
“The book tells us ‘when training begins, we are formless clay, though we appear as men. When our training ends, we are gods, though we appear as men.’ For Essanti, love is a wound, and she’s all that can heal it.”
Rook’s fervency touched Kami, and the admiration that sometimes vanished, returned. “Is that from the Book of Emanations?”
“Codex of the Essanti.”
“You love her. You made a vow to serve her,” Kami said, “so you serve. We’re not so different, except that I haven’t made a vow.”
“People like you never make a vow. You serve yourselves, saying you serve an ideal, a way of life, and you call that a ‘choice’ and think it’s noble. But Essanti don’t serve ideals. We make our vows to people, not words that can change. Like me, you serve her, but you don’t realize it yet. You think you still have choices to make. That’s what your secret meetings are about.”
“I know who you’ve been meeting with at the temple, and you should realize we can’t tolerate their existence. We won’t. They aren’t just trying to stop Avestar. She will take back Darklaw one day, and everyone trying to stop Avestar now will be trying to stop her then. Did you know that your friends are responsible for sabotage in the city? They’re an uncontrolled element. We need obedience, not help. I’m warning you, because I may have to kill them.”
“They saved families,” Kami said with concern. “They helped over one-hundred refugees from the Trade Empire. They settled in cities of Avjakar, and some of them have joined us to help others. We can help so many people this way, and these are good people.”
“You don’t understand the danger you’re in.”
“You’re the one threatening.”
“You’re impressionable. You take on the thoughts of others and think they’re your own. That’s the danger. You think you’re your own person, Kami, but you’re only a mirror. More than other people, Essanti must devote themselves to someone. That’s the only choice we have, one that must last a lifetime, because if we don’t, we end up serving the moment.”
Rook stood and straightened his lavender tunic. He had long ago traded the peasant clothes stolen at Graystone for the Ascendency’s military-style tunic, which gave him a regal bearing. His voice, too, took on greater authority. “You will not see these people again, and you’ll begin Essanti training with me as soon as we reach Koledoon.” Before Kami could disagree, Rook said, “She would rather have you in her bed tonight, but I will take your place if you choose.”
“I didn’t need your help earlier. I’ve fought her off before.”
Rook nodded curtly, but as he walked away, his laughter made her neck hair stiffen.
The breeze picked up after Rook was gone. Tightening her arms about herself, Kami gazed up at the dark sky and wondered about the Sahr, a hard and hardy people with a mysterious past and hundreds of years of fealty to emperors.
Her own people descended from the mingled races of the Trade and Demon Quarters. They were diverse in life and belief, independent and skilled in all manner of arts. She felt an uncharacteristic sense of pride. She still didn’t know why she stayed with Avestine, and considering Rook’s threat, she decided it was time to leave.
She had the opportunity now. She could hide with her new friends. Avestine would have to leave for Koledoon without her, and then the future, and all her choices, would be hers alone.
Kami returned to her room to pack. She picked through her few belongings, keeping her pack light for the trip to the rundown tenement where Narayan and Mazu lived. She didn’t have much. As she looked at the pile on the bed, she was disturbed to realize she had nothing to remind her of Avestine.
She cinched the straps on the oiled canvas sack, but before she could sneak from her room, a knock startled her. She hid her pack and let in the messenger. The young man presented her a basket, and when Kami lifted the cloth that covered it, horror sent her stumbling backward. In a weak voice, she asked who had sent him.
The man bowed slightly. “I was instructed to tell you that these are two fingers, one each from Narayan and Mazu.”
Kami flinched, as if struck. “Are they dead?”
The messenger said nothing.
“Who did this? Why?” Kami couldn’t stop trembling.
“I was told to tell you that the next basket will hold Narayan and Mazu’s heads if you see them again.”
Kami thought of the young couple who had impressed her with their kindness. She wanted to race to them at once, but she glanced at the basket and realized her defiance would get them killed.
She sent the man away and quickly undid her packing. Huddled under her blankets, she couldn’t hold back the tears.