Published in Darklaw
Copyright © Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Epic fantasy | 2017
A DAY’S RIDE from Riverside, hundreds of people gathered, bringing food and crafts to trade at Harvest Festival. The celebration was the most important event of the year for people of the Trade Quarter, when the first fruits ripened and the second planting began.
Two-hundred drummers sat on rough-hewn logs, and between each man’s knees rested a hollow stump, stripped of its bark and sanded smooth. Tethered to the ground, a stretched hide covered each hollow. Boys stood beside the men. Throughout the early part of the day, the boys rubbed oil onto the hides as they dried and cracked from use.
Although Kami had eaten some biscuits, she felt as if she had not eaten for days. Her emptiness became anxiousness until she found herself watchful of everything that moved. She stood near the drummers, their rhythm distracting her, breaking apart her thoughts like rain disintegrating sheets of ice.
“This is their life.”
Startled, Kami stepped back and stumbled over Avestine’s foot.
“The drummers, I mean.” Avestine kept Kami from falling. “You should be dressing for the sunfall ceremony. Are you all right?”
Kami wasn’t all right. Something was affecting her, and she feared it might be a sort of magic, but it could have been the forest, which sometimes seized her senses, her thoughts, her very self. A group passed by smoking tobacco leaves, and as Avestine greeted them, Kami backed from the clearing. She maneuvered down a slope and hurried on, not knowing where she was going except away from the drums.
Leaves rushed by like waves in an emerald ocean. The forest merged into a current that flowed around her. When she noticed the damp smell of old leaves, exhilaration poured new energy into her tired legs. She was content to be lost.
Avestine appeared from behind a tree. “The forest isn’t safe.”
Before Kami could speak, Avestine touched a hand to her lips to keep her silent. When Avestine parted some brush, Kami saw a man under a woman, his hands on her hips as she rode him. His torn tan trousers were on a bush nearby along with the woman’s pale blue dress.
Kami watched until she realized Avestine had left.
AVESTINE SAT ALONE on the trail, preparing to smoke a pipe. She looked forward to the local festivals, even those celebrating the divinity of an ungrateful son, because they always had tobacco. She took several puffs before Kami emerged from the trees.
“Drunken festivals and who cares about the rest of the world?” said Kami. “This is how you live now?”
Avestine gestured with her pipe, but Kami only frowned at it. Avestine asked, “Have you ever tried tobacco?”
“I spent my childhood smelling the smoke and stepping around the brown spit when I walked through the bar. Whenever we ran low, Mama would take from the girls in order to buy more before the customers complained. The girls didn’t mind. At least it covered up the stink of the men.” Her face soured at the memory. “Some of the girls smoked it, too.”
Avestine set the pipe on a rock and went to Kami. She lifted Kami’s chin and examined the brown eyes, almost black, like a sky with no stars and possessing endless secrets. Kami’s thoughts didn’t seem to be her own, as if something else possessed her. Avestine knew what that was. The Wild.
She respected the power of the Wild, even if she hated it. The forest was atrocious, a conspiracy of collective murder, where everything was trying to eat you. Chaos was a power that remained unharnessed, and therefore, uninteresting to a woman like Avestine.
“You’re a curious girl,” muttered Avestine. “I’ve known a few Essanti like you. Essanti of Instinct. They were savages. Beasts. They ate whatever didn’t move. Screwed anything that did.”
Kami pulled her chin free.
Avestine seized the tender cheeks, forcing Kami’s mouth to pucker. The lips were fleshy and curled into a dramatic ridge that thrust out petulantly from under her small nose. The unremarkable girl Avestine had met weeks ago was becoming as enticing as the captives she once kept in her harem.
Looking from the soft mouth to the accusing eyes, Avestine saw the fear of discovery trying to hide behind the glare. Although Avestine’s desire always smoldered between rage and desperation, few could provoke her like Kami. After taking a deep breath, she made an effort to master herself by mastering the girl.
“What is it you want, little one?” said Avestine. “Tired of peeping? Do you want to touch me?” Her words drew an obscene glimmer from Kami’s eyes, and Avestine felt an exquisite rush. With an effort more challenging than she had expected, she swung her leg to trip Kami, but found her mouth pressing against the tender lips instead.
Kami ceased struggling. Avestine braced herself against the groping mouth and trembling body that suddenly clung to her like a plea for help. She held Kami’s pale face, her fingers slipping around into the short, dark hair, while her thumbs managed the glide of Kami’s narrow jaw. They kissed until they were both gasping for air.
When Avestine pulled away, she saw Kami’s lustrous brown eyes going blind with desire. Avestine kissed her again, stroking the tender mouth with her experienced tongue.
Every part of Kami yielded, and when Kami’s hips pressed against her, the offer struck Avestine like erotic lightning. She pushed Kami to the ground. The hem along the crotch of her trousers made a convenient ridge that rolled between them, and she stopped grinding only when Kami wrapped her legs around her and moaned, “Avestine.”
Avestine drew back. She found no flicker of the rational girl in the lust-drunk eyes. “Don’t call me that. My name is ‘Asada’.”
“I know the truth.” Kami blinked.
“The truth?” Avestine rose to her feet. “When I was your age, I thought I knew everything, too.”
Anger cleared the remaining fog from Kami’s eyes as she scooted away. “You were never my age.”
“Oh, I was your age for a very long time, child. But there’s no point in lying to you, is there? You know things you shouldn’t. I’m going to have to teach you a lesson about that.”
“There’s nothing you can teach me.”
“You think you know everything about Avestine, but you don’t. Should I tell you what she was like, your hero? She was a god, you know. A god. Can you imagine what it’s like to own five million people? To have men kill each other for the privilege of dying by your hand? To have women beg you to cut their faces so they’ll bear your mark forever?”
She paused for a response, but Kami simply stared back.
“You’re right,” she continued. “It didn’t mean a thing. She found it quite tedious. She despised the weak-minded sheep, all those people so willing to die. But then her brother killed their father and took the throne for his own. When he used his personal guard to hold her down and make her his wife, she discovered she couldn’t save herself. She couldn’t even save her daughter.”
“You have a daughter?”
“So there is something you don’t know.” Avestine straightened. “Now, after all this time, all those people dead, all those towns burned. After all that, his legions are back. What has war gained anyone? What has Avestine gained anyone?”
“Time,” offered Kami firmly, unruffled by Avestine’s confession. “Time and freedom. She drove the legions away, and now the more we take, the less he’ll have.”
“You think like a child.”
“You’re just angry. Angry because I’m right.”
“I was right!” Avestine hissed. “That’s why you hated your home. Too much time watching men screw women and wishing you could, too.”
Red splotches stained Kami’s cheeks. “You’re not a god. You’re just a woman. Like me.”
“Not like you!” Avestine’s venomous eyes were weapons that drove Kami’s gaze away. The vulnerability Kami offered up so easily struck Avestine hard, so she struck back with indifference as cruel as she could make it. “Did you believe I’d be glad you found me? Did you really believe I’d care about you at all? Don’t you realize what I’ve done? I’ve killed girls like you, and the ones I didn’t kill, I shared with my soldiers.”
“You want me to be afraid of you?”
“You stupid girl!” Avestine began to pace. “The legions Avestar commands are the ones I trained. I’m the one who impaled the first rebel. I’m the one who sent the first man into the arena.” As she paced, memories of her brother’s smug face launched a fury of expletives that left her shaking with rage.
Kami had risen to her feet and backed away. “I always wanted to leave.” She blinked away the well of tears in her eyes, sending drips down her cheeks. “Then the soldiers came, burned the village. I had no one. I thought of you. You saved the village once. I thought you could save me.”
As a narrow gloss continued to drip down Kami’s cheek, blood pounded in Avestine’s ears. Kami’s vulnerability was a sea Avestine’s reason couldn’t navigate. She felt as if she had a fever. “Save you?”
“You were the ‘Savior of Featherwood.’ We have a statue of you near the main well.”
Avestine didn’t want to hear anymore. She closed her eyes.
“I was so tired of being afraid,” said Kami. “And I came to find you, but I’m not afraid anymore. Somehow, you make me not afraid. I think that’s why I stay. Only sometimes I don’t feel anything. And sometimes, I feel too much. I can’t stand this. Nothing makes sense. I hurt all the time.”
Avestine sighed at the sound of honesty. “Every day you’re near me you grow less rational. Haven’t you noticed that yet?” She reached for Kami. “Come here.”
She grasped Kami’s arms and pressed her mouth to the tender neck, but Kami freed an arm and slapped her.
Avestine was startled for a moment before she shouted, “It was a reckless woman who drove your people like pigs to a slaughterhouse! How many died at Agate Bay? Do you know how many?”
Kami turned from the savage voice, but Avestine didn’t relent. She wrestled Kami to the ground again. “Lie still. I’ll give you what you want.”
She thrust a hand down the front of Kami’s trousers. Despite the heat of her desire, memories Avestine had forgotten began to fill her thoughts as clearly as the day they formed. When her fire cooled, she rolled off Kami, who scrambled to her feet and ran away.
When Avestine found her way back to the celebration, she went for a cup of ale. Standing around with the other voyeurs, she saw the village elder, Hadred, staring pensively into the gyrating mass of dancers. She joined him and looked through the crowd, expecting to find Serene, Hadred’s young wife, surrounded by a pack of men. What she saw was much worse.