Published in Darklaw
Copyright © Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Epic fantasy | 2017
WHEN SHE WOKE, Kami could see from one eye only. Her face stung with each breath and her sides throbbed. She rolled sideways, and pain overwhelmed her into unconsciousness.
When she woke again, she was on her back, and her blind eye was burning. She raised her hand, and as she touched her eye, flies buzzed away. The floor was stone and so cold it felt wet. Trying to speak made her cough.
When she woke a third time, Rook was standing over her holding a flickering lamp. He threw water on her face. Her body ached in rhythm to her pulse, but she managed to whisper, “Avestine.”
Rook left, and Kami felt relieved that Avestine would soon save her.
But time was not a passing thing. It floated around her as a torment, rekindling the fire in her sides and face, rekindling the pain that a man she was coming to trust had spent hours beating her.
Rationality returned slowly as pain withdrew, and she realized that Avestine wasn’t coming. Rook must not have told her. Of course he wouldn’t, since he had done this to her.
She woke again to Rook pouring water into her mouth. She gagged, trying to push him away, and when Rook hit her, Kami began another fit of coughing. She punched Rook with a weak fist, despite the fire that shot along her side. Rook knocked her hands away and began beating her into unconsciousness again.
It seemed that her own heartbeat woke her up. Its rhythm pounded in her ears, the pressure feeling as if something were trying to escape from within her. When she imagined escape, she pulled at the rope around her wrists.
She didn’t remember Rook tying her hands.
Her breath hissed through a broken nose and bubbled through blood. She lay on her side, her left cheek pressed against the stone. The dank smell told her the small prison was some hidden room, a basement or a dungeon.
Anticipating Rook’s arrival, she turned herself with her legs so that she faced the door, or what she thought was the door. It seemed as though he entered from a different place every time he came.
She released her breath and told herself to relax, to distance herself. Her body was confined, but she didn’t have to be. She began to imagine herself in the forest.
Rook’s voice startled her, and the joyful vision darkened when she rolled onto her back. Rook had entered the room from behind her, but he carried no light, and only the sensation of his presence told her he was there.
“Why?” Rook asked again.
Kami didn’t understand. She strained to see through the darkness, to see the face, the eyes, something that might help her understand what he wanted, but she saw nothing.
“What do you expect to see?” he asked. “Why do you strain to see with your eyes what you can already hear with your mind? Is escape all that matters?”
She almost spoke. She sensed Rook was curious, even needful of her answers, and for the first time since her imprisonment, she found herself with power, however small.
Rook laughed, and then he was gone.
She lay staring in the direction from which Rook left. If his unpredictability were the purpose, then she had only to figure what she wasn’t supposed to expect.
She smelled something awful, a stench so overwhelming and so particular that she realized it could only be a corpse.
She tried to sit up and spun on the floor, her shoulder hitting something hard. She squinted in the dim light. The light had appeared suddenly and from nowhere. She made out the ragged edges of bone and flesh, hardened from months of rot. She scuttled back and bumped another lump, this one soft. The hand she braced on the floor slipped in soft tissue and her face sunk into a corpse’s cheek.
She screamed with horror. She closed her eyes and settled on her back, stiff with terror, begging through her tight throat for the Great Mother to kill her quickly. She finally vomited and passed out.
When Rook arrived again, she cursed herself as she awoke unprepared for him. She still lay on her bound hands, bracing her palms on the floor, leery about moving anywhere.
Rook seemed to hover over top of her. “I’m not an equation to be solved.”
She swung her right leg, trying to kick him, but she hit nothing, and her momentum sent her to her side where she stared into the sunken chest of a corpse. An iron collar still circled its neck.
Metal clinked against the floor, and Kami realized chains bound her ankles. Iron bands had replaced the ties on her wrists, and they cut into her flesh.
Rook rolled her onto her back, and his hands slid under her tunic, grasping at her skin, squeezing her broken ribs so that she howled from the pain.
She felt Rook’s heat roam over her breasts and then reach between her legs. Though she screamed and bucked, she couldn’t push him off. He shoved something hard between her legs. The burning raced like fire through her body. Every thrust burned until she passed out.
“How did she wake up?” Avestine asked as she watched two-hundred archers shooting at targets from horseback.
Rook said, “A guard found her stumbling through the corridor outside her room. They returned her to her bed, where she lost consciousness again.”
“Don’t shrug at me, Essanti.”
He accepted the accusation. It was a word of pride and shame, a name for the protectors of the empire and servants of the Sahr. “It’s never happened before.”
“Is she done?”
“We barely began. Her first step was to find me, to track me, to know when I was coming and from where. Maybe it’s her vision. I told you. I’ve never trained one with her vision.”
Avestine returned her attention to the men practicing in the field.
Rook thought back thirty-three years ago to when he lay unconscious, aching, and terrified, as Kami was now. But Kami must be more so, because she was so much older than he had been.
She was in a prison of her own creation. The choice of prison was a reflection of what each Essanti feared most. Very often an Essanti created a cell, as Kami had. And occasionally, torture was part of that experience. Rook’s own prison had been an island, a beautiful but lonely island, where isolation was the torture he endured, where he had not even the company of a jailer.
Avestine nodded. “How many does this make?”
“I’ve trained thirty-seven.”
“Did they all bother you this much?”
“They were children.”
“Then this should be easier.”
“You don’t understand. The younger they are, the easier it is because they have less horror to imagine.”
“It’s nothing that hasn’t happened to all of you. You endured, and so will she.”
“I think her hell is Bala’s prison, where prisoners are chained and left to die of thirst and starvation, one upon another. It’s a stinking nightmare.” A pause followed. “She had me rape her, too.”
Avestine’s eyes grew vicious, and she seized his arm. “You did what?”
“But you were there? You participated?”
“You understand how this works. I’ve explained it many times.”
“Making herself suffer while you watch. It’s madness.”
She sneered. “But how much did you enjoy it?”
“I’m not the one who enjoys raping girls.”
Avestine slapped him, and his head remained turned from the force as she spoke into his ear, “And maybe I’ll enjoy walking away from your corpse just as much one day.”
He stretched his jaw before he said, “It may be too late. She buried herself among corpses. She’s starving, and she hasn’t made a door. She’s got no way out. She’s committing suicide.”
Avestine left Rook for one of the bowmen. Perhaps worried by his commander’s approach, the man dismounted from his horse so swiftly that his bow loosed the arrow, and it struck the ground near Avestine’s feet.
She pulled the arrow free. As she handed it back to the man, she said precisely, “The damage should be to your enemies not your companions. You fight with your right hand?” The man nodded. “Why draw the bow with your left?”
“It feels more natural, Lady.”
“The next time I see you drawing with your left, you’ll get three lashes.” She returned to Rook’s side. “Kami’s smart,” she said. “Just tell her what she needs to do. Tell her, like I told that man. He won’t make the mistake again, and he’ll only get better for my instruction.”
“This isn’t a skill that can be taught.”
Avestine was losing patience. “I have men to train.”
“Twenty years is a long time to develop ways to manage fear. She escapes her cell only by her ability to imagine herself somewhere else, instead of finding me. She should find me. Essanti embrace. She can’t be Essanti and have imagination like that. It means she doesn’t have to deal with things as they are.”
“You’re wrong,” replied Avestine after some thought. “It means she doesn’t have to accept things as they are.”
He stood straight, unwilling to end the conversation, and when Avestine finally focused all her attention on him, he confessed, “I haven’t told you everything.”
“She’s gone. I lost her before evensun.”
Avestine snatched Rook’s tunic. “Lost her? You said the guards took her to her bed.”
“Of course, she’s there. Her body, I mean. But she’s not in her mind.”
“She’s not in her mind?”
Before Rook could answer, Avestine left the field. He followed, and they cut through the courtyard and the reception halls until they reached the palace’s residence wing and Kami’s room.
When they entered, they found Kami sleeping peacefully under a fur blanket.
Avestine looked her over. “Did you have to be so rough? You should get a healer for that eye. She probably can’t see out of it.”
“I tried to knock her out quickly.” Rook licked his lips. “She’s strong.”
He sat down on the bed. He thought of the two women, the one he knew as well as he knew himself, and the other he knew less than he had once imagined. Avestine’s game of indifference was one Kami had mastered, but where Avestine prevaricated, hiding her feelings through sheer force of will, Kami could be authentically unfeeling. He thought that, as the not-so-beautiful and fatherless daughter of a whore, Kami had no right to such arrogance.
Kami’s facile weaving of thought and imagination had unraveled, and Rook didn’t know which strand led back to her. He had been following one after the other but found himself alone wherever he went. “I’m taking her away,” he said.
“Maybe she expects you to save her. Maybe that’s all it is, waiting for you to save her. She was asking for you in the dream. Maybe she won’t free herself as long as she knows you’re near. Your presence must have given her enough focus to awaken.”
“Isn’t that good? She belongs to me.”
“When she’s bound, she’ll belong to you.”
“I need you here.”
“You have Gerard. You have the archers.” He looked up from the bed into Avestine’s worried eyes. “And when I’m done you’ll have another obedient Essanti. Imagine what you might do with such a passionate girl who’s also obedient.”
Avestine’s eyebrows shot up at the thought of an obedient Kami. She followed with a slow nod of agreement.