KAMI STOOD AT the top of a stairway that passed down among hundreds of robed worshipers. Though she saw the temple filled with people, she truly saw only one man, and when he turned, he seemed to see only her. As the chanting slowed, deepened, and then faded, he spread his arms wide.
The sparkling temple wore the grandeur of heaven itself; the vaulted ceiling so high it was lost in the shine; the colors so pure, so bright, that the earthly stone and glass became dreamlike visions. In the heat of light and spirit, dizziness weakened her, but temple guards held her upright, and when returning strength focused the world, she saw that the worshipers were gone.
The man stood alone at the end of a stone pathway that led from the world she had just left to madness. Like a relentless storm, that madness pursued her. She knew it had moved across the world with an impartial path, and her terror was that much greater for its implacability, for its inevitability.
As the guards escorted her down the winding stairway, her heart pounded until the strain cried for release. As if she were being led to her death, she struggled with each step that brought her closer to him, yanking her arms from the guards’ grip, twisting away and finally locking her knees until the guards were dragging her like a man being led to execution.
She tried to look away, but when the indistinct image of the man became a sharp contour, and the familiar eyes she had never seen bore through her, madness broke like a storm, and she gave herself up with great relief. When the guards loosened their hold, she fell sobbing to the man’s sandaled feet. She blinked through tears and peer up into a face so familiar and so unbearably beautiful.
“We know.” His voice was music, was deep with the compassion of a caretaker among the tormented. She relaxed in the melody of his presence. He seemed to know her soul more intimately than she did herself.
He had not introduced himself, nor had anyone prepared her with a ceremony or instructions for such a moment. But as she lay at his feet, and he stroked her hair, she surrendered to a most passionate yearning simply to lie beneath the gentle hand of the man known as “Avestar the Mad.”
Avestar had servants escort Kami to his residence, a sprawling palace built of bluish marble that squatted at the foot of a magnificent snowy peak near the waters of Blue Sun Bay.
The land of the Blue Sun was a dim, wintery world, whose constancy of season made it feel timeless. The rugged mountains and steppes froze to great depths, causing frost heaves to dry out trees and prevent farming in most of the high seaward regions. The short, cold summers suffered violent storms. That left the sustaining crops to grow in the valleys; hardy ryes and vegetables from the cabbage family rounded out the diet of fresh game and fish stews, although in the Awhaz a strange grape had been cultivated that produced a red wine valued throughout the world.
Such a meal greeted Kami when she arrived. She ate as if she hadn’t eaten in days, and sat afterward with a cup of wine. Avestar had left her alone, and she wandered around the vaulted room before making her way through the wide doors to the balcony. As soon as she opened the doors, the sweeping vista stole her breath away.
She had to step over a trough of glowing coals between the door and the balcony floor. And then, although she stood outside, she was warm. As well as the coals, heat radiated from the balcony floor, and through a narrow gap, she saw warm water running under the stones.
She peered over the iron railing where the valley dropped away in a great scoop of snow-covered grassland. At a distance that made even the ocean at Agate Bay seem small, the plain rose across a mountain range to a crescent of trees that blurred into the horizon. The drop from the balcony where Kami stood shook her each time she looked. Such vertical heights were foreign, were as frighteningly unreal as the azure twilight that made the sky seem so heavy that she felt the urge to duck.
“It can’t hurt you.”
Kami turned to see Avestar. He had loosened the sand-colored robe he wore at the temple. It draped from his firm shoulders. His eyes, mirrors of the Dark Quarter sun, shone like cerulean fire. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t quite catch her breath, and as he walked near, she backed away, turning her face from his unbearable beauty.
Avestar seemed not to notice her discomfort. He walked casually to the railing, where he set his hands, leaving his back to her. The timidity she felt eased when his attention drifted to the landscape.
The glowing coals that warmed the open balcony against the winter cast warm tones across his back. He wasn’t as tall, but he was broader than his sister, and a comfort settled around him in contrast to Avestine’s fiery discontent. His brown hair was cut short over his ears and on top, providing a youthful softness to the middle-aged man. He was a pleasing weight, not as thin as Avestine, not as hungry.
Although she wanted to ask his purpose, Kami couldn’t speak, couldn’t quite feel her own body or even move it. The power to act wasn’t hers.
“Sit,” he commanded, and she had no thought but to sit or die trying.
When she was resting on a stone bench near the railing, she noticed again the heat that warmed her feet through the balcony floor, though she sat a mere arm’s length from icicles. She looked up for Avestar’s next command.
He touched her chin. “We see such terrible things in your eyes.”
She drank in his concern as if she needed only that to live.
“You understand the abomination of the Essanti? But we preserved you because you can still be saved. People of the Gift must never have favorites. That’s the first law, to see all life equally. Only this way do we prevent the horrors that come at the hands of the Essanti. Oh, but of course!” He touched a finger to his lips, but then a kind regard replaced his impish smile. “Kami,” he said, “welcome to the palace built seven-hundred years ago by the First Emperor. You are in Eternal Sahrdon.”
She looked warily into the calm face.
Avestar’s blue eyes sparkled.
“I was in Koledoon a few days ago.”
“Weeks,” corrected Avestar.
“She told you her brother wanted to kill her, didn’t she?” He took her hand, stroked it, and studied it. “The hand of an Essanti. How odd.” He smiled impishly again. “Tell us about her. Was she well when you saw her?”
Tightly intertwined with hers, his hand was hot and sweaty. Kami gazed from his grip to his face. His eyebrows arched from his nose, high across his forehead near his temples, each one reacting expressively with his speech. His gaze flickered with joy or sadness by the moment. His eyes, framed by fair skin and dark hair, kept Kami in awe.
With a sudden burst of inspiration, Avestar rushed her to her feet, guiding her from the balcony. He pulled her through winding corridors to where a handful of men guarded a door. When she went through, she realized it was his bedroom.
The door slammed behind her, and she turned to face him. But he stood smiling fondly at something behind her, and when she followed his gaze, turning to look behind her, she saw a large portrait of Avestine that hung in a silver frame behind his bed.
“Is she still that beautiful?” he asked.
As she walked closer, Kami had to crane her neck. Avestine stood twice life-size, a black Darklaw uniform accentuating her strong shoulders. A gray wolf fur hung in a thick cape, and a silver breastplate, encrusted with a glistening circle of sapphires, covered her ribcage. A silver clasp held her golden hair, the tail of it hanging forward across her left shoulder, as it still did, and at her slim waist hung the sword she had always carried, though not as battered as Kami remembered.
“She has a scar,” Kami said, turning back to Avestar. “Here.” She touched her finger to her cheek below her right eye.
“Agate Bay,” he replied.
As Avestar turned to leave, panic stole upon Kami. “Don’t leave me.”
“Your gift is not just that you hear the silent voices, but that you know the truth better than the rest of us. You’re never alone.”
“You’re not at all what I expected.”
Published in Darklaw |
Copyright © 2017 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved. |