Published in Darklaw
Copyright © Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Epic fantasy | 2017
KAMI DROPPED A dead rabbit in the basin of the main kitchen and went to get her skinning knife from the room she shared with Racine. As she threw open her door, she saw the swarthy face of a middle-aged man stretched out on her bed, his back against the wall and mud-caked boots resting on the blanket. His sinewy arms lay crossed on his chest like two entwined snakes. A white smile shone through sun burnt skin. His blue eyes acknowledged her without the slightest surprise.
Kami tried to ask who he was, but words stuck in her throat. Before she had taken a second step, someone from behind stopped her with a hand to her shoulder.
She fell back, shoved by Avestine into the hallway. Avestine drew her sword. The man was quicker, and he leapt from the bed. His arms slammed into the door near Avestine’s head. Only then did Kami notice the man had no hands and wore wraps of gray wool around his wrists.
As the man leapt away, Avestine sliced air. He rushed Avestine’s left side, but Avestine jammed the pommel of her sword into his stomach on her backswing. Turning around, Avestine crouched to face the man, whose squinting eyes seemed only to smile more.
The man yielded, spreading his arms wide.
Avestine didn’t relax her vigilance. “What do you want?”
“What I always want.” The man winked at Kami.
The bitter smile and wink were like something Avestine might do, and then Kami saw a number of similarities between the man and Avestine: the sleeveless tunic and leather trousers, the deep white scars that crisscrossed tanned skin, and the sparkling eyes that shone with the radiance of two blue suns.
Avestine sheathed her sword. “Kami of Featherwood, this is Rook of the Essanti. He’s probably been sent to kill you. After all, who has enough gold for his service if not Avestar?”
When Rook’s mirthful eyes hardened, Kami knew Avestine was offering only an insult, not a fact. Rook shifted to get a different look at Kami, but Avestine warned him back with a wave of her hand, “I’m your master until the day you die.”
“Are you sure that isn’t until the day you die?” Rook’s teeth clenched. “You see, I’ve wondered about that these three years since you left me on that rock. Rats took half my foot. Frostbite deformed my ears, and after the ice desert robbed me of my body’s sensation one inch at a time, I promised myself I would find out if it wasn’t until the day you died.”
“You took an oath, but you don’t obey very well, do you? I ordered you to die on that rock.”
“Don’t make the mistake of thinking she has a heart,” Rook said to Kami.
Despite his angry words, Rook’s entire body began to ease. His eyes softened and his breathing deepened. Kami recognized surrender. It was the same feeling she had experienced when she met Avestine.
She noted the scarred nose and lips and the deformed ears beneath his black-and-gray hair. “How did you survive?” Kami asked.
“How did you survive?” He asked in turn.
“She doesn’t understand,” Avestine said to Rook.
“You should tell her.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Kami.
Avestine pushed open a shutter and looked out the window. “You didn’t believe me.”
Rook scrutinized Kami but said to Avestine, “I’m surprised you let her live.”
Kami rested her hands on her hips. “Yes, well, I think she’s been regretting that for a while.”
Rook’s smile brought a dimple to his left cheek, enhancing the friendliness of his eyes. Avestine reproved his amusement with a glare. He tilted his head to get a better look and said to Kami, “You know the truth.”
“Why don’t you tell her that,” said Kami. “She keeps telling me she’s not Avestine.”
“You know who she is, but that only matters if you know who you are.” He glanced from one woman to the other.
Kami let herself get angry. “I suppose I could be one of these Essanti if you want me to be. From what I see, it doesn’t take much. Servants, right? How hard is it to do what you’re told? Like a dog.”
“Loyal, yes, if that’s what you mean,” said Rook.
“A dog will lick the hand of one who beats it.” Kami sensed his anger responding to her own. “It also eats its own vomit.”
Avestine erupted with laughter.
Rook postured for a moment. He was a man of purpose, and Kami could see that he used his friendly eyes as a distraction. Humor rarely found a perch on him.
“You don’t know your purpose, so what does it matter what else you know?” he said. “I’ll tell you what she hasn’t. Long before Darklaw spread across the continent, when the first king settled Sahrdon, he took into his service a family of shamans. This family grew numerous and strong, but after many generations, some of them began to serve ideals instead of men. They refused to be bound. But Essanti aren’t fit to rule themselves. We must always serve. Those who turned away, the generations after the schism, were purged. Some of them escaped demonward, to the Demonforest.”
Kami saw the forest where she played as a child, where she had escaped for protection from the village with its greedy, grasping men, as less a haven than she imagined.
“No one knows for sure where they went,” Rook continued, “these Essanti among the demonfolk. Did they stay together, secluded in some remote part of that terrible jungle, or did they disperse and interbreed among the other races and move out into the farmlands and seacoasts, maybe even into Featherwood?”
“You think you know.”
Rook shared a look with Avestine. “Yes, I do, because I’ve been killing their descendants one-at-a-time as they wander out of the Demonforest.”
“They have ability and no discipline, power and no master. Free Essanti are why Avestar returns again and again to the Demon Quarter.”
Kami closed her eyes as sounds of screaming and smells of charred flesh filled her thoughts. “He burned villages to cinders.”
“For years, even before he stole the throne from his father, he was searching for them. He has a hard time finding them, because they’re not looking for him. They usually find their way to her.” Rook gestured at Avestine, whose expression cautioned him against saying more. “Avestine and Avestar are like twin flames. The moths sometimes get confused, but she’s the brightest. She’s the true Emissary of Arujan, no matter how ardently Avestar tries to change that. He killed his father thinking the gods would give him all the powers of life and death, but the Essanti belong to her.”
“Does this mean you’re going to kill me?”
“You know who you are, then?”
“I know who you think I am,” Kami said. “I came looking for Avestine because I had nowhere else to go. She saved my village once. I thought she could do it again, but she had rather hide from her brother than stand in his way.” She expected a reaction, but Avestine was staring out the window again.
Rook asked, “So why do you stay? If she won’t help, why don’t you leave, find another way, another hero?”
The question caused Kami’s neck hair to bristle because no answer came to mind. She didn’t know why she stayed. She didn’t even want to stay. The bad feeling she had when she first saw Rook returned.
“I was wrong, Your Grace,” said Rook to Avestine, “and I realized it as I walked day-after-day through the ice, terrified not for myself but for you. I imagined you alone to fight off bounty hunters. But then it occurred to me you wouldn’t be alone, because they would find you, Essanti like this girl, and if I weren’t killing them, they might serve you as I had. To kill Free Essanti as I had been doing was in the service of Darklaw. That’s what I came to see in the desert. They aren’t the same thing, though they once were.”
Avestine appeared to struggle with a decision before she said, “You will protect her as if she were me.”
“Once she’s bound.”
“Bound?” asked Kami.
“Essanti serve, but we aren’t servants,” said Rook. “We must have a master, but we have the right to choose that master.”
“And what decision have you left me? The choice to do as you tell me or to die?”
Kami saw her glib retort had breached Rook’s congenial façade.
“You have a choice,” he said. “I’m just going to make sure it’s the right one.”