Published in Darklaw
Copyright © Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Epic fantasy | 2017
IN THE LAND of the Unsetting Sun, the day was split by the dimmest time—sunfall—and the heat of the day, when the god arrived at his highest point in the sky—evensun. Kami spent the early part of her days with Rook, but after evensun, she usually went to the practice field. Her sparring partner stood two heads taller.
She arrived to find her partner waiting for her. She slid her shield from its perch on the rack and chose a long sword.
Practicing was difficult. She tried to focus on the man before her, reaching for the visions that had allowed her to defend herself at times in her life. So much of her strength and courage came from what she could imagine. Although she could will things to happen, it didn’t always work. She concentrated on the technique she had seen Avestine perform. Step forward, swing the shield, thrust the sword, follow through with the other foot.
When she stepped and thrust, her partner parried, and his lax manner exuded condescension. He knocked her thrust away each time, and she was beginning to take his easy manner as an insult.
She stepped and thrust again, and he batted her effort to the other side. Through the iron helmet that covered his face, she saw his bored eyes, and she understood he had a more glorious vision of his life than to train an untalented girl to fight.
After a slow blink, she saw his sweat-soaked face dripping with the blood of an enemy as he battled a path through an entire company of Darklaw soldiers. At the end of his march, he stood alone atop a hill. Looking back on the carnage, he planted the fluttering blue-and-black flag of Avjakar into dirt that ran red at his feet.
Kami stepped away from the soldier in the practice field, and in so doing, she stepped away from the flag atop the bloody hill.
Gazing skyward, she saw a glowing, blue disk. She was confused because the Blue Sun lived in the Dark Quarter.
She was seeing through the soldier’s eyes, seeing his fantasy of life in another land. She heard his voice like an echo, distant and unclear.
She strained to understand it and finally did.
“Are we done?” the soldier asked her.
As if emerging half drowned, she fell to her knees, gasping for air, and passed out.
Avestine was speaking quietly with several men when Kami arrived at their quarters for dinner.
Rook surprised Kami from behind. He peered over her shoulder at the group. “They’re advisors to Severesh. The one in the pink tunic is his treasurer and the other is some sort of liaison to the temple.”
“What does a liaison to the temple do?”
“Severesh has a liaison for everything. They think, so he doesn’t have to.”
Avestine dismissed the men and Kami and Rook sat with her for dinner. Servants brought stew and bread. Kami became so involved with eating that she didn’t notice the stares until Rook touched her arm.
Stew dripping from her mouth, cheeks bloated with bread, Kami glanced from one face to another. “What?” she said irritably as she set the bowl down. She wiped her face on her sleeve.
Except for the clanking of utensils and dishes, they finished their dinner in silence. As the servants cleared the bowls and brought whiskey, Rook said to Kami, “I heard you had some trouble at practice.”
“No trouble.” Kami leaned back, feeling pleasantly full. “Tea?” she asked the servant girl near her. The girl was young, and Kami admired her steady shoulders as she carried a stack of ceramic bowls away.
“The fieldmaster said you collapsed,” continued Rook, “and the attendants couldn’t revive you for a while.”
“If your partner’s too hard on you,” said Avestine, “we can get an easier one.”
Kami’s eyes flashed. “He’s fine.” She thought a moment and added, “He’s very fine. In fact, he’s quite a man: ambitious, strong. Good qualities, don’t you think?” She held Avestine’s stare with her own as the servant returned with her tea.
“Why not whiskey?” Avestine asked.
“Whiskey makes me forget things.” Kami breathed in the steam from the tea.
“What things?” Rook asked.
“I forgot them.”
Rook hid his smile behind his cup as Avestine said to Kami, “You’re angry?”
“Do I seem angry?” wondered Kami.
“You were more congenial in my bed.”
“It was the whiskey.”
“That put you in my bed, or that made you so congenial?”
Avestine’s insinuation unnerved Kami, but she sipped her tea, and her tension eased, the warmth washing away her anger like a tide smoothing the sand. “I’ll be going to the temple after dinner.”
Avestine’s jaw tightened. “You spend a lot of time there.”
“The people need comforting, and the gods need to be honored. Of course I spend a lot of time there. Where else should I be?”
Second to the sprawling, five-story Royal Palace, the Temple of Sula-Mon was the grandest structure in Avjakar. A small gilt dome topped the square building faced with pink granite and carved with iconic reliefs of Sula’s life. At sunfall, the three great arched windows were shuttered, but brass lamps burned at each corner of the building, illuminating a frieze painted in bright hues of red, orange, and yellow.
Upon entering the temple, a wall funneled visitors to each side, and along its base waited offerings for the priests and temple workers. More than any other god, Sula cared for the peasants. The wealthy relied on Arujan for aid.
Kami passed by the black stone image of Sula, face painted yellow, and the pink stone image of his wife, Mon, face painted white. At the back of the temple, she went through a door and down a flight of stairs to the basement. She passed several identical doors before entering one.
“I’m so glad you made it!” said Narayan as she scurried across the room. She pressed her cheek to Kami’s and led her back to the table where four men stood looking at a map tacked down to the table. A young man with a queue of hair like Avestine’s watched Kami with profound interest as Narayan’s husband, Mazu, finished speaking.
“We have thirty families who have already paid for guides. I hear there are at least twice as many who want out but don’t have the coin for supplies or guides. But our people in Silverside don’t think we can take more, not without problems from the locals. The region needs ranch hands, but it’s seasonal work. If we bring in outsiders to fill the positions, they’re likely to bring a complaint to the palace.”
Kami noticed the man with a queue watching her. He was young, unshaven, his long blonde hair tied loosely, as if he had slept on it. She tried to look down at the map, but her gaze lingered. His eyes were heavy-lidded like a Sahr. He offered a self-conscious smile, and she sensed something familiar about him. He had a false tooth carved from a stone of swirled white agate.
“The heat this second season probably means drought, and a weak second harvest will shrink our opportunities,” said Narayan. She wore an orange dress and stood with her arms crossed. Her long brunette braids draped over her arms.
“We’re running out of places willing to take refugees,” said Mazu. “We need to move our efforts. I think we should send someone to Insaid, see if we can find friendly villages across the Wealth.”
Kami began to speak, but stopped herself. Mazu coaxed her to continue. She thanked him and squeezed Narayan’s hand. “Forgive me. I was told you’ve already found homes for over a hundred refugees from the Trade Empire. Maybe you should approach the king. At the very least, he could provide liaisons to the villages.”
“Narayan told us you’re a guest of the king,” said the man with the queue. “Do you think you can talk to him?”
“No, no,” a bald man said. “Severesh doesn’t care about peasants. He’s preparing for war. There will be more refugees than anyone wants to deal with soon, and look what the king’s done to his own people. He took thirteen farms to make way for the new fort and road. If he finds out what we’re doing, he’ll hang us.”
Mazu said, “This could be dangerous for everyone. The king would probably refuse to help, worried we’re spying.” His gazed settled on Kami. “We agreed to include you in our plans because you’ve been a generous donor here since you arrived in Avjakar, and the help you gave the Maori family when they lost their sons was an example for all to follow.”
Kami had been bringing supplies from the palace stores for the poor who begged at the temple. She made regular offerings to Sula from her hunts in the royal grounds, and when a family had lost their two sons to a fever, she managed to trade one of Avestine’s silver cups for two mules in the market.
“You three continue while Kami and I talk,” said Narayan to Mazu.
Narayan led Kami upstairs. “We’ll have to talk in the storage room behind the altar. I hope you don’t mind dust.”
Once they settled onto crates in the small room, Narayan sighed. “I can’t tell you what a day it’s been. The man you met down there, the bald one, thinks we should quit our work in the Empire and stay in the temple.”
“What about the one with the queue?”
“Raret? He’s new, a man from a prominent family in Dihesh. Mazu isn’t sure we should trust him yet, but, yes, I did notice how he looked at you.” Narayan smiled suggestively. “And the way you looked at him.”
“No, nothing like that. He just seemed familiar.”
“Would you like to meet him again? Mazu and I could have the two of you for tea.”
Narayan’s insistence made Kami uncomfortable. “No time for that. I’m here to help, not find a husband.”
“Oh now,” began Narayan, her tone conspiratorial. “We’re not children, Kami. I don’t think Raret’s much interested in finding a wife, either. You could just share some time together.”
Kami shook her head, trying to smile politely. “About the bald man. He may be right about Severesh.”
Disappointed, Narayan leaned back. “We don’t need the king’s help. I’m just afraid, like he said, that he’ll think us spies. What do you know about the king’s advisors? You know that woman, Asada, right? Terrible-looking woman. I heard she has a man with her who used to serve Avestar, a man with no hands. What do you know about him?”
“Rook doesn’t serve Avestar.”
“Rook.” Narayan said the name as if it were odd. “So, is it true? Is he what they say he is? Have you ever heard of the Essanti?”
Kami shrugged. “He’s a servant.”
“Essanti are wizards, demons. That’s why they don’t need their hands. Their hands are a sacrifice to the father of demons.”
“Yes! Rook must be one of his servants.” She thought a moment before repeating, “Servant of a demon.”
“The Emissary?” Narayan stared at her, expecting an explanation. “Avestar is the Emissary. Is that why he’s here? Is he here to get his Essanti back?”
Kami realized she had said too much. “I don’t know.”
“You have some dangerous friends, Kami. Powerful. Ambitious. They’re the kind of people who keep other people around only if they’re useful. Are you useful to them?”
“I lost my mother a year ago, but…” She paused, careful to use Avestine’s assumed name. “…Asada helped me when I came to Queenscourt. She saved my life. I’m her…servant.”
“Why is she here? You know, don’t you? She’s his sister. She’s Avestine.” Narayan took hold of her arm. “I just want to understand why you’re here.”
“I’m here to help.”
Narayan let go, smiling apologetically. “Mazu said there was someone from the palace asking questions yesterday.”
“Do you want me to talk to Asada? Maybe she can talk to the king.”
“Why would the king listen to her? What does she do for him? She’s Avestine, isn’t she? Still alive after all these years.”
“All I know is she has known the king for many years.”
“It’s true then. Her brother still posts the bounty.” Narayan watched Kami carefully as she continued, “Avestar at our borders, the king keeping counsel with your friend, the presence of an Essanti. It all makes sense if your friend is really Avestine. She was here when my father was in the army, so I know about the Architect. He helped the king expand the Ascendancy, adding the whole darkward expanse beyond the Whitefish River. Now she’s got a bounty on her head, so she’s looking for protection. Her brother might tear this land apart to get her. We may all end up paying for her crimes. The king would help himself if he handed her over. I’m sure the emperor would show his gratitude.”
Kami froze at the thought. She had not imagined anyone would claim the bounty, although she now wondered why anyone wouldn’t, why no one had. She felt a sudden urge to find Avestine, to be sure she was safe. “If you want help, let me know; otherwise, I’ll be back in a few days with more supplies.”
Narayan took a deep breath and nodded. She turned and walked Kami out of the temple. “We could use some more blankets and shoes, especially for the children.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thank you, Kami.”
Kami hugged her. “Peace, Narayan.”
Back at the palace, she found Avestine asleep. A servant offered her a gown, but she declined it and stripped naked. She crawled in beside Avestine and fell asleep against her shoulder.