Published in Darklaw
Copyright © Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Epic fantasy | 2017
At dinner, Avestine shared fish, Kami had grilled her goose, one man scrambled three large brown eggs, and several women brought baskets of biscuits. Others had boiled potatoes from the gardens. Serene arrived late with a bowl of berries.
After dinner, most of the people wandered off to the other buildings. Kami sat with Racine, a curly redhead who wore a yellow sackcloth dress. She was a bright girl, but uneducated, and since no one at Riverside showed much interest in helping the children read or write, Kami had become their teacher. She started the children on puzzles she had learned from some of the worldly customers who had used her mother’s services.
Racine scooted a piece of board toward Kami, who sat with a group of adults drinking tea.
“Nine circles are the spots where the hare stops,” said Racine, repeating the instructions Kami had given her. “You’re the hawk, and you must catch the hare, and since you don’t know where he’ll go, you must cover all nine spots where he might stop. Four swoops without landing is all you get. Four straight lines connected, since it must be a single flight.”
Kami looked at the drawing on the board, seeing the hawk swooping in four paths across the three rows of three circles each. She had solved the puzzle in an intuitive instant when she was twelve. Now she continued to stare at the drawing as if she were confused, glad when Racine giggled. “Then you’ll show me?” said Kami.
“Four straight lines? Impossible,” said Hadred as he leaned over the drawing, scratching his beard. He was a man with black-and-gray hair kept bristly short to match his beard. Although he was Serene’s husband, he was old enough to be her father.
Snatching the board, Racine dragged her soft rock across the wood, leaving a dusty white line to link all nine circles in the same pattern Kami had seen. “See how I did it?” Racine explained. “I bet most people try to catch the hare by staying in the field with him. But the hawk isn’t limited to the field, is he?”
Hadred sat back, arms crossed. “But she drew outside the field.”
“He can fly outside of the field. Why not?” Racine glanced at Kami for support. “Staying in the field would have forced more turns.”
“Very clever, Racine.” Kami squeezed the girl’s shoulder again. “You think like a hawk.”
After a brief smile, Racine said, “But the other one is impossible.” She flipped the board over and drew eight circles, four sets of pairs stacked vertically. “You said the hawk’s tired and must get the hare with only one swoop. One swoop to cover eight spots!”
“How did you solve the first problem?”
“I don’t know. I just did.”
“When you do know, you’ll be able to solve the second.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Think about the first problem. You probably dragged your rock circle-to-circle, right?” Racine nodded. “You tried that several ways and realized no matter where you started, you wouldn’t be able to link all with four. What made you see that? Did you try every possible way to link the circles, starting with each circle and trying every path?”
“I tried a few.”
“Why did you decide it wasn’t going to work with some combination you didn’t try?”
“Because the reason it didn’t work for one was the same reason it didn’t work for all the others.”
“Right. You saw a pattern. Then you realized you had to break free of that pattern. So you drew out beyond the field and new paths appeared before your eyes. The paths your eyes make on these four pairs must be ignored as you open yourself to other ways of seeing the problem.”
“Tell me the answer.”
“Actually, there are many answers.” Kami thought a moment. “The first problem made you think of the field differently. This one will force you to think of the hawk differently.”
Just then, Racine’s mother insisted she get to bed. After Racine left, Hadred pointed to the board. “How?”
“Like I said, think of the hawk differently.”
“Prove it.” Hadred glanced from the sides of his eyes at Avestine, who sat with her arms crossed, one skeptical eyebrow reaching toward her hairline.
Kami drew a rectangle around the pairs of circles left on the board by Racine and began filling it in. Hadred asked what she was doing.
“Filling in my line,” she explained.
“That’s a block.”
“No, it’s a fat line.”
Hadred looked at Avestine. “That’s cheating, isn’t it?”
“So I have a fat line,” said Kami, “but it’s a straight line.”
“That’s against the rules.”
“Hawks aren’t fat.” Hadred sat back, grinning and glancing from Kami to Avestine. “You said you had many solutions.”
Kami glanced about the table and selected a half-eaten piece of biscuit. She pressed her finger into the bread to simulate the four pairs of circles. Then she began tearing the bread into pieces. When she had each divot on a piece of bread by itself, she lined them up in a single row. As her finger glided across the row, she said, “One line.”
“You can’t separate the circles!” Hadred rose, slapping the table with amusement.
“Is it in those rules again, the ones I wasn’t paying attention to?”
“Smart? By Sula, you’re a cheater!” announced Hadred, laughing. He finished his tea and bowed to Kami. “I won’t give your secret away.” He left with Serene following along behind.
The other adults left, too, leaving Kami alone with Avestine, who poured herself a cup of whiskey.
“Cheating is what someone accuses you of because they didn’t think of it,” said Avestine. “Otherwise, it’s just clever.”
“The lesson is to think about how you think. Racine has an ability to see patterns. She has so much potential. Do you know what I mean?”
“She’s an interesting girl. Smart. I noticed that about her, too.”
“I never see you around the children.”
“That’s not quite true.” Avestine finished her whiskey in two gulps. “What you don’t see are children around me.”
Kami was drinking tea, but it had grown cold, so she only spun it in her cup.
“You’re a smart girl, too.” Avestine tried to smile cheerfully, but her mood was somber. “You can read and write. Not many girls can do that.”
“Why hasn’t anyone been teaching the children?”
Avestine’s fingers stroked the sides of her cup, giving her eyes somewhere to go. “It wasn’t important when I was a child. I had slaves to read and write for me.”
“I suppose that was difficult.”
Avestine’s face hardened. “Don’t pity me, child.”
“What about your father’s writings? Can you read them?”
“What do you know about my father?”
“The Architect’s writing is standard history.”
“I keep telling you, I’m not Avestine.”
“Yes, you keep telling me that.” Kami took a drink of her cold tea, wincing as she tasted the grainy sediment. “I once had a copy of his Meditations, but I lost it along with everything else.”
Avestine leaned forward, setting her elbows on the table. One idle hand held her necklace as it spilled over the collar of her shirt, revealing a charm on the end.
“Why a fishhook?”
Avestine fingered the hook. “A present from my father. A test of manhood. When a boy is fourteen he goes out to sea and makes his first catch. The size and kind of fish foretells the boy’s destiny.”
“A test of manhood? For a daughter?”
“I was the most promising of my father’s children.”
“What did you catch?”
“An eel? How odd.”
“The bait had been nibbled away and the hook snagged the eel’s tail as it slipped by.”
“So what did that say about your destiny?”
“My father said the knowledge of the gods would one day be mine.”
“All that from an eel?”
“From the story of Arujan and Bala, when they fought for the throne of the world. Neither had the advantage, but Arujan told Mon if she would speak into Bala’s ear and distract her, then he would give her the brightest light. When Mon did this, Arujan was able to bind Bala’s feet and secure her. But then, Arujan refused to honor his promise and gave Mon the lesser light. He gave the brightest light to his son, Sula, and so that Mon couldn’t tell of his betrayal, Arujan stole her voice and hid it beneath the earth. Eels are born where Mon’s voice slips free.”
“Yes. The truth Arujan tried to hide.” Kami’s eyebrow arched as Avestine frowned. “Secrets of the gods. A girl raised to be a son. A golden fishhook. The sea is life for the Sahr, and no one could mistake you for any other race, not with those heavy-lidded blue eyes. How is it no one knows who you are but me?”
“You imagine things.”
Kami thought back to Featherwood, to the time she peeked through a keyhole to watch Domna entertaining the savior of Featherwood. Except for her name, Avestine had not changed in those years. Skin not made ruddy by the sun was a shade of tan tinted with yellow, appearing golden in a certain light. She remembered that enchanting glow. She remembered Avestine in a lazy sprawl, the sun glinting across her naked flesh, Domna on the floor between her legs.
She remembered also the soft pads now hidden beneath Avestine’s tunic. The memory of Avestine’s bare breasts was a strange reminder of femininity on a body famed for its scars. Ten years ago, the body Kami had watched undulating gratefully beneath an attentive mouth had earlier that same day decapitated a man on the sands of Agate Bay. That combination of brutality and gentleness still confused Kami.
“Would you like me to take off my shirt?” asked Avestine with a mocking smile.
Kami wondered if conversations with Avestine would always be a strategic battle. If so, she made up her mind to win at least once. “I don’t know about eels.” Kami engaged Avestine’s probing gaze with her own. “But I remember a story your father got wrong. The one about the Spirit Fish who wandered the seas so focused on what he was thinking that he found himself suddenly free. He was still a fish, but not like other fish, because he was a fish apart from fishness, no longer bound by all those things people expect of fishes. He could leave the ocean and swim through the sky. This is how the Spirit Fish teaches us freedom. What is ‘fish’ apart from sea? What is ‘spirit’ apart from man?”
“I never understood that story,” said Avestine as she swatted the air.
“Your father wrote about it to justify his execution of the other Dark Three princes. He said the Spirit Fish was about making your own destiny. But he was wrong. The Spirit Fish is just a question we ask ourselves. Do we choose what we are apart from the world or do we become what we are because of the world? Your father changed the meaning to suit his ends, first with the princes and then with the priests. Even in the Demon Quarter we heard about the destruction of the temple at Marhash. Like the Spirit Fish, the priests there claimed they could experience ‘existence’ apart from ‘life,’ so your father thought he would test that ability with an impaling. A line of one-hundred men hung on poles outside Sahrdon for three-years before the last of the bones fell to the ground.”
“Actually, it was one hundred and twenty. They were a group of Essanti called ‘Elumen’ who prophesied about the End of the World. And it didn’t take three years for the corpses to decompose, even though their bodies were tarred so they would last longer.”
“Essanti? Essanti are priests? Is that what you think I am?”
“The Eluman were treasonous Essanti. They served in the temples, but they didn’t speak for the gods. The Elumen had a vision of the Darklord coming. It’s an ancient tale, but their new vision showed the demon born into the family of the Architect. The Elumen warned the Architect would give birth to the destruction of the world. They thought if it was the End of the World, then the Avatars weren’t far behind. That meant their service was done. The Architect showed them otherwise. In the end, those who thought they spoke for the gods learned only the Emissary does.”
Kami wondered why the Essanti thought the end was near. She realized for them it was. “Your father was a cruel man.”
“If you mean the Architect, he expected perfect obedience and unyielding strength.”
Kami knew of his reputation, but until then, she had never imagined what such a man might have expected from a daughter. “Eels are slippery.”
“I chopped off its head.” Avestine frowned, which gave Kami a bad feeling.
Before Kami could move away, Avestine moved her chair closer and reached a hand to Kami’s knee. The contact startled Kami, and she drew her legs together. She pushed Avestine’s hands away, but they kept coming back until Kami took hold of them.
“I suppose if any of us read,” Avestine said, “we might have the Architect’s book. But there are better pastimes to pursue, don’t you think?” She stood, her hand drawing Kami to her feet. “My bed is warm.”
Kami’s eyes widened, drawing a smile from Avestine. “I’m only asking.” Kami said nothing, and in the silence, Avestine’s good humor evaporated. “If you change your mind, you better knock.”
During sunfall, when the day was still quite dim, Kami awoke to noises outside her room. She recognized Avestine’s throaty voice responding to the stern accusations of a man, and among the rough whispers, Kami understood a few words, including her own name. Then the voices grew breathless and inarticulate. She peeked from her room, curious to see what man might interest Avestine.
Beside the steady light of an oil lamp, a man sat at the kitchen table with his back to her. He was one of the younger men from the compound—rough and dirty. Avestine stood in front of him. Kami ducked back behind the doorframe, but a moment later, curiosity drove her to peer around the corner. She watched while desire and guilt tugged on her like two demanding children.
Avestine stepped away from the table to remove her boots. She dropped her shirt and trousers to the floor. On each side of her chest, muscle cut into the pad of her breasts. Beneath the many small scars, her golden skin sculpted firm muscles. Most of Avestine’s body hair was black, much darker than on her head, and the ribbons of hair covering her lean legs asserted a masculine virility, making her feminine curves expressly sexual.
The tuft of Avestine’s pubic hair was thick and curled between her legs into a triangular pillow. A thin fringe of pubic hair touched the articulations where each hip and leg joined. That intimate fold had been an object of fascination for Kami since the first time she had watched a girl bending over for a customer. She lost her breath as her body clenched with terrible excitement.
Gazing across the man’s shoulder, Avestine saw her, but Kami didn’t look away. Kami’s cheeks burned her confession and her heart pounded wildly when Avestine set her feet against the floor and begin to rise and fall on the man’s lap.
Kami watched Avestine’s eyes grow weak and imagined Avestine’s thighs spread across her lap, imagined flexed muscles, feathery curls, and cushioned folds all slicked by wet desire. Her palms were sweating, and her mouth was dry. A compulsive need finally gave her the will to move, and she returned to her room.
Once she was under the covers, she lifted her sleeping gown and began to rub herself vigorously. Her eyes flickered from the soothing pleasure before she closed them, imagining Avestine’s body laying on her.
She imagined reaching to taste the sweat that seeped along Avestine’s leg, while her tongue strayed through the fringe of hair. She tried to imagine what it would be like to fill her mouth with the flesh of a woman. Pleasure rushed through her in convulsive waves as she choked back her cries.
She gasped for air when she finished and then lay with her hand near her face. In the afterglow of her solitary indulgence, immersed in the enchanting aroma of feminine arousal, she drifted to sleep.