Published in Darklaw
Copyright © Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Epic fantasy | 2017
KAMI AWOKE IN Avestine’s bed. Three feather pillows circled her head. She stared up into the silver-fringed drapery that hung in layer after layer from the canopy. A dream of hawks had filled most of her sleep.
Like a cold wind, the realization hit her that she was in Avestine’s bed. She rose and looked around, but she was alone. The day before was unclear. She remembered kissing Avestine. She tried to remember everything, but a black wall seemed to stand between the memory of Avestine’s warm skin and the hawks.
The smell of sex was strong. She went to the servant door across the room from the exit, where an elderly woman was brushing a pair of Avestine’s new boots. Before Kami could ask, the old woman told her a bath waited for her. Kami thanked the woman and walked through the door where other women waited with towels.
After her bath, she left the residences and met with Rook in the palace library. Unlike Avestine, Rook had been eager to take advantage of Kami’s knowledge.
He had asked her to help him improve his reading. Since arriving in Avjakar, they had begun to spend the first half of the day reviewing passages from interesting books in the several languages familiar to Kami.
She began the day’s lesson with a passage from the Architect’s history, a book he wrote when his children were still young. She read:
“In the days when men still hunted other men for food and the gods did not yet know of their existence, there came one with eyes of the sun. He subdued the tribes in the lands under the Blue Sun and made them one people, both those who worshiped him as divine and those who feared him as demonic. But he was neither. He was a man: a creature more terrible than any god and more enchanting than any demon.
“He was Vadim, the First Emperor, and he founded Sahrdon the Eternal, and then he founded Sahrohl, the Kingdom of Stone, and then Sahrsora, the Coast of the Blue Sun. He called his empire ‘The Dark Three’, and one day, as all men do, he surrendered the flesh beneath the sun, leaving thirty generations of his descendants to savage the lands he had conquered.
“After thirty generations of barbaric rule there came another man, a descendant of Vadim, with eyes of the sun. Men forever afterward would know him as ‘The Architect’. On the throne of the world sat an unworthy boy, polluted by sloth and cowardice. The Architect fed the boy’s parts to the eight winds and tamed the rebels of the lands ruled by The Dark Three, the lands now called the ‘Dark Quarter’.
“After the Architect built cities and ships, he cast his eyes upon the other three quarters of the world, where the Blue Sun was unknown, where day shone strangely yellow and bright. In these lands lived other gods and the Rebel Son, who refuses to rest as he awaits his return to the Father.”
They had been working their way through the text for days, but that morning, Kami had trouble concentrating. She turned the book, paged through it, and then spun it back around. “Try this one.”
“The chieftain…” Rook hesitated, mouthing the next word as if unsure what it was. Before Kami could help, he continued, “…takes the first bite and passes the plate back to the server-priest. Then the second takes his and passes it back. The whole tribe in turn dances when the meal is finished.”
“That’s ‘the whole tribe performs this in turn until the meal is finished’,” She corrected. “But you gather the meaning.”
“What place is this that eats insects?”
She flipped back a few pages. “That one was written about the Tribes of the Sun.”
“I didn’t know they ate insects. How does anyone share an insect? Maybe we should ask Gerard.” Rook laughed.
Kami knew Rook didn’t like Gerard. He was uncomfortable around him, perhaps because of how closely he worked with Avestine.
His laughter faded and he asked, “How do you know so much, Kami? You’re so young.”
His compliment surprised her. “None of the girls in town were allowed to play with me. I didn’t have friends, but there were lots of men around. They always had stories, and I spent a lot of time alone, too. I read everything I could.”
After a moment of silence, Rook asked, “Have you seen her today?”
Kami saw the shadow of a smile on his weathered face. He expected what he knew to embarrass her but it didn’t. “Let’s finish this page.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Rook said.
“Used to what?”
“Your time in her bed doesn’t mean anything.”
“What should it mean?”
“Love should mean something even when you’re not naked.”
Rook’s point intrigued Kami, more for what it said about him. “So you think it was about love? Maybe I was just…sharing the demon.” She smiled when he smiled, remembering a conversation they once had.
“I don’t know what to think about you. Most girls—” He closed his mouth.
Kami heard his thoughts and said them aloud for him. “Make it a ‘fuck and a footrace’? Is that a quote from her?”
“She says a lot of things you wouldn’t want to hear.” He waved the stump of his right arm as he spoke, and Kami looked more closely at the covers that capped his missing hands. He had replaced his gray wraps upon reaching Avjakar, and now he had a leather cap for each arm emblazoned with studs in the form of a circle with a dot at the center.
Kami said, “You should have gotten over your jealousy a long time ago.”
“I’m not jealous of you. I thought she was in trouble.”
“Why would you think that?”
“She was disturbed.”
“And you don’t trust me.”
“Or the god you serve.”
“The Great Mother has no interest in your squabbles.”
“Not the Great Mother,” said Rook. “Sahrot is an enemy of order. An enemy of kings.”
“Sahrot is a Sahran god. I don’t know anything about her cult.”
“What you don’t seem to understand is that you are Sahr.”
She was beginning to believe that she might be descended of the Essanti, as he had been telling her, but she did not realize all that meant. “Well, I don’t expect love from her. I expect the truth, and she gives that to me whether she wants to or not. I’ll never be a slave like you.”
“I’m not a slave.”
“You’re not? Was losing your hands your decision?”
“What it was…” He paused and the irritation left his voice. “Was the worst pain I ever felt.”
“Both of you must have been children when it happened. Ten? Twelve? How could one child do that to another?”
“I was a present to her on her tenth birthday, before my training was complete. Removing the hands is the final step in the ritual. She completed my training, and I took my oath to her. You see? She was always to be his heir. That’s what makes this war so ludicrous.”
“Her brother’s war. With her. With the Essanti. With the gods.”
“But she’s the one who killed your spirit.”
“She taught me limits.”
“You mean she tamed you.” Kami sat back, her eyes challenging his faith. “I know what you think of me. I hear your thoughts. You don’t believe a ‘whore’s rat’ can be an Essanti anymore than I do.”
“It’s because you can hear my thoughts that I know you’re more than just a whore’s rat.” He traced the circle of studs on the leather case with his other one. “Arujan.” He swirled his wrist in a circle across the studs on his other wrist. “The Blue Sun.” He looked at her, staring into her eyes for a long moment, as if trying to find an answer. He held up his arms. “Most people can’t stand to look at me, especially women, but you don’t mind sitting with me, or even eating with me.”
“I don’t pity you.”
“Thank you for that.” He shook his head. “I don’t know what Instinct provides its children, Kami, except for what it says in the Book of Emanations. The light of Instinct flows down from the superior Emanation of Mercy and then through Wisdom. Instinct lives most fully in beasts, not men, so I’ve rarely seen it. What I have seen doesn’t recommend Sahrot. We never needed her. I don’t know what the gods have planned for you. What gifts do animals possess? What gift could possibly come from such lowly creatures as…” He paused, glancing around the room and
gesturing with his arm until he saw mouse droppings on the floor. “Mice?”
Kami didn’t have to think long to recognize the value. She had always taken shelter in the forest—a solace not because it was safe, but because it was honest.
The beasts lived with a clarity the world of men lacked. They lived without self-pity or resentment. They lived without the burden of pride. They experienced life in an immediate and terrifying way but without lies.
Without a need to lie, they could trust in every sensation. That meant those who served Sahrot were the most alive. That’s what creatures like mice had to offer.