Darklaw – Episode 46

MORNING ARRIVED QUICKLY and Kami found she had managed to sleep for awhile. Malika woke her before sunrise and dressed her. The guards arrived while she was in the toilet, and she had to force herself to leave the room without an attempt to stay locked away.

She told herself it was inevitable and the less she fought it, the easier it would be. But part of her continued to shout, telling her to run, to fight, to bite, scratch, to scream—anything but go easily. Maybe the argument she was having with herself was the same one every Essanti had. Maybe this was the first step in the ancient compromise, the first capitulation on the road toward servitude. Overcoming herself. Taming herself before her master ever set a hand on her.

The guards led her through the corridors, down to a level she didn’t know existed. Malika followed, carrying a pitcher of water and stack of towels. They entered a room, small and barred, like a dungeon’s cell. A cement block rested on the floor in the middle of the room. Brown and purple stains spread in every direction. The room smelled of slaughter.

The guards pushed her up against a wall, where she waited for an hour as servants came and went, bringing one item at a time into the room. First, a man placed a silk cloth over the stone. Next, a servant brought a rack of axes. Later, two men set a low table beside the stone. A man set shackles, ropes, and a gag on the table. A podium was set opposite the table. Another man brought a large book to the podium and slowly paged through it before sliding a silk marker in place and then leaving.

Kami was sweating, but she told herself it had more to do with the heated water she heard running beneath the floor than her nerves. She thought she had made peace with her fate when Avestar finally arrived. As soon as she saw who accompanied him, she knew he was the man from the roof, and he was more familiar than that. He was also the man she had met briefly in Avjakar at the temple of Sula-Mon, the one with the messy queue and agate tooth who couldn’t stop staring at her.

He looked at her now, marveling in the same way. He wore all black, a long dress similar to Avestar’s. He had no hands and wore unadorned wrist caps of black leather. She didn’t recall missing hands when he was in Avjakar.

Avestar came close to her. “Let us introduce the man you knew but didn’t know. This is Raret, Avatar of Katan.” To Raret, he said, “You know Kami, of course.”

Raret nodded slightly.

“We’re sorry you were wrong,” Avestar said to Raret. “There must be more of her kind still out there, but the bonding will secure her until the others can be rooted out and killed. Maybe then your vision will come true, and we will have our second Avatar.”

Raret didn’t seem to be listening to Avestar, and Kami tried to get a sense of who he was, how he had managed the charade of an Avjakar rebel, why he had followed her, and why he kept a watch on her at the palace.

“The vision is true,” said Raret, his voice like music in the way Avestar’s had been the first time Kami met him. He nodded deferentially at Avestar. “Though the eyes may deceive, Your Grace. She is the one. If you wait—”

“No more waiting!” interrupted Avestar. “If she’s the one, she will live, and nothing will be lost.” He giggled. “Nothing except her hands. Did you pray, Kami? Did you pray to the gods to spare you? That, too, is part of the lesson. The gods work their will through us, so you must learn to pray to us.” He clasped his hands together and said, “Let’s finish this. We have a beheading at sunrise.”

The guards guided Kami to the low table, had her kneel. One of the servants pulled her hands across the table and onto the stone. Another tied tourniquets to each forearm. Into her hands, Raret placed a dagger. He told her to hold it as long as she could. The dagger was the symbol of the power she had and would lose; that she lacked and would gain. The hilt was made of wood with a gold stamped hawk, the symbol of Sahrdon. The blade had words embossed: “Strength a means. Life a debt. Future a god.”

Avestar stood at the podium looking at the book. When the guards, servants, and Raret were waiting quietly, Avestar read from the page:

“The gift of Justice bends the Essanti before the Emissary. The gift of Mercy bends the Essanti before the Emissary. The gift of Knowledge bends the Essanti before the Emissary. The gift of Wisdom bends the Essanti before the Emissary. The gift of Cognition bends the Essanti before the Emissary. The gift of Instinct bends the Essanti before the Emissary.

“The Emissary has the sense to see and the will to do, by light of the Divine Will of Arujan, the All-Seeing, the Father and Giver of Life, who unveils the hidden mysteries, cuts the knots, and rebuilds the crumbled ruins of a world given over to hungers and cravings.

“To the Emissary the Essanti offers the gift of his Emanation. To the Emissary the Essanti offers his hands so that his power will be made vulnerable by pain, dependent by castigation. By his deformity will the Essanti’s shame be known. By his deformity will his power be feared. He is an instrument of the gods. He is no longer a man. He is Essanti. Strength a means. Life a debt. Future a god.”

Avestar stepped back, and Raret said to Kami, “Repeat these words: What are the Essanti? We are light and dark. We know love like a wound, and death comes to us from the knowledge of that wound. When training begins, we are formless clay, though we appear as men. When our training ends, we are gods, though we appear as men.”

Kami had to keep licking her lips and her voice cracked, but she repeated the words.

Raret poured a small bottle of oil over each of her hands. A different guard held each of her arms now, and her fingers were throbbing from the pressure of the tourniquets.

“On this very stone have the Essanti of thirty-two generations offered their sacrifice to power,” said Avestar. “From the hands of Demid to the hands of Raret, every Essanti has knelt, sweated, feared, cried, screamed, and sometimes died.” He looked back at the book and read:

“Without the means of worldly power, only faith remains, and great is the faith of the Essanti. Great, then, becomes his power. Great, then is the power to serve.”

Kami blinked sweat from her eyes. She felt faint, despite the pain in her fingers that returned her focus with each throbbing heartbeat. Her fingers loosened their grip on the dagger.

Avestar continued to speak, and he made the ritual personal for Kami when he mentioned Rook. Kami saw Rook as a boy of ten kneeling at this block before Avestine with her ax raised. Avestar expected his story would make Kami more fearful, but it did the opposite. The kinship with Rook eased her anxiety. Rook had made it. She would, too.

Avestar said, “Make your oath now.”

She blinked to clear her vision, and then shook her head slightly, not sure what he meant.

“You will soon offer your hands,” said Raret. “The hands of a servant belong to his master. It is essential that you make your vow to serve the Emissary, who alone knows Truth. The Emissary, who alone commands your obedience.”

She felt Raret’s gaze burning into her. He emphasized the word “Emissary” each time he said it. He repeated himself until Avestar grew impatient.

“Now! Make your oath now!” Avestar bellowed.

“To the Emissary,” emphasized Raret again, as he stepped back.

“Yes, I will make my oath,” said Kami quickly. She thought she understood Raret’s meaning and stumbled over a few words before closing her eyes. She thought of Avestine. She could feel her, smell her, and with her eyes still closed, she said, “I will serve the Emissary with all my strength and all my heart. My gift belongs to the Emissary. My life belongs to the Emissary.”

After Kami opened her eyes, Avestar drew an ax from the rack, tilted it to catch the light, and put it back. He went through two more until he settled for a blade as short as Kami’s arm. He touched it to Kami’s hand, drawing blood from a blade so sharp she didn’t feel it. “Do not close your eyes,” he told her.

“Essanti do not escape,” she said, remembering Rook. “We embrace.” Her greatest fight was to keep from struggling, despite knowing the uselessness of fighting the strong arms and tourniquets. She couldn’t keep her body from trembling. She shivered uncontrollably, as if she had fallen into icy water.

While he slowly raised the ax, Avestar gritted his teeth. With a growl, he swung it down with all his strength and chopped through her right hand.

Pain stole her thoughts, filled her vision, her mouth, her ears. The world roared until she went deaf, leaving not even the throb of a pulse to tick away the time. She couldn’t hear her own screaming, though she felt the sound rush from her throat like shattered glass. Pain grew in time’s vacuum, leaving her weak, but guards held her steady.

Her head flopped forward, and the second cut returned sound to the world. She howled in a pitch she had never made before and then vomited. Towels wiped her, while hands pulled on her arms, tugging on tourniquets. She felt life flowing from her, and she didn’t care. She tried to hurry it along, tried to end it by sheer will, along with the pain. She begged the men to kill her, and she prayed for the gods to take her, and she was grateful when the gods, at least, seemed to answer.

Published in Darklaw |
Copyright © 2017 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved. |