Darklaw – Episode 51

ALONG WITH A late planting and a pause in rebuilding the iceward wall, Avestine was growing angry with all the delays, especially Rook’s. His return was overdue by weeks.

Her orders for everything from taxes to palace repairs weren’t having the immediate impact she expected, and after a great deal of thought, she concluded that the government established by the king of Ureth Mourning was unwieldy. With Gerard at her side, she drew up plans to streamline the dozens of offices and split the administration in two.

She needed only six senior staff to manage the system, not the dozens of men who called on her daily. She had grown up under this system. This was Darklaw. She saw no reason why it wouldn’t work as well for a kingdom in the Trade Quarter. But she didn’t count on the hundreds of men who relied on petty offices for their livelihoods.

Mere rumors of the coming changes brought protests welling up through the palace like water in the over-soaked fields. They brought their complaints to their queen, who had the power to swat them like a fly, but the vehemence of such vulnerable, common men startled her.

The Senior Dispatcher, Jesma, who had a sinister reputation for extorting bribes to deliver citizen’s petitions to palace officials, fussed at Gerard about the many men he would have to cast off and insisted he needed every one to send and collect letters and petitions in the cities and villages under tribute.

Jesma had been at his post for two decades. Although his corruption was undoubtedly entrenched beyond anyone’s knowledge, he managed deliveries to official and unofficial destinations efficiently. He personally knew most of the prominent men of the Trade Quarter, which included those in Avjakar and Koledoon. His network of agents, linked through a system of hostels, stables, docks, and carrier pigeons, could inform on activities in every village.

Once Gerard made clear to her what Jesma could provide, Avestine invited him to an audience, where she learned more about the Trade Quarter from him in one conversation than she had from all the conversations with the rest of the staff. She could barely stand to look at the bloated little man, with his wispy beard and yellow teeth, but like everyone she came to rely on, she probed him for the one vice that might define his limits.

Jesma was greedy but he was also self-important, which meant he took pride in his cleverness more than his sheer wealth. She knew as long as she managed to keep the system loose enough to allow his creative collection of bribes, she wouldn’t need to worry about his loyalty. He wouldn’t risk his life for any principle beyond his game.

She was pleased that Jesma didn’t seem to realize that though coin was power, other reasons could persuade men, as well. She became absorbed in administrative reform, until weeks past his expected return, Rook finally arrived back in the city.

Messengers told her the news before he entered the council chamber.

When she saw him, he wore bloodstained clothes that looked as though wild animals had attacked him. Alarmed, Avestine called the day done, dismissed her staff, and brought him to her personal chamber, where he insisted he wasn’t hurt. She sent for a healer anyway.

“You’re very late,” she said, probing his expression for any clue to what had happened. “Were you attacked? Did you run into Sovereignty soldiers? Avjakar? Who did this?”

As she handed him a cup of whiskey, he peered through eyes that didn’t seem to see her at all. “The abbey was deserted. The prison abandoned.” Rook cast glazed eyes from Avestine to Gerard, who studied him with concern.

Avestine touched his shirt. 

Rook swallowed a mouthful of whiskey and relaxed a little.

“She was there,” said Rook, and though he seemed to want to say more, he only repeated himself. “She was there.”

“What are you babbling about?”

“Kami. It was Kami who did this.”

Avestine didn’t speak for a long moment. Then she seized his shirt. “You shit. I’ll have you skinned and hung on a wall.”

“It was her. I know it was. She killed them all.”

Avestine shook her head slowly. “She’s dead. How long has it been? A year since you took her from Koledoon? Many weeks since the soldiers nearly killed you. You saw the soldiers kill her. They kill Essanti. You said she was dead.”

Rook stared back without expression.

Avestine slapped him.

He just shook his head.

“Whose blood is this?”

“Villager? Don’t know. Torn apart by a wolf. Hundreds, maybe thousands dead. In the forest and sea, all dead. Eaten alive by wolves, flies, sharks, hawks, snakes, all crying out to Sahrot for mercy.”

“Sahrot has no mercy,” snapped Avestine. She felt as if she were falling and wished she would just hit ground so she could be done with the pain.

After another drink, Rook said, “She’s at Agate Bay.”

“Agate Bay? You couldn’t have made it that far.”

“No. We met refugees. They told us about Darklaw ships anchored there, so we headed toward the sea, but more refugees arrived and said the ships were gone. There had been three ships. One day docked. The next day vanished.”

“Why haven’t my scouts informed me of this? How can Darklaw ships be at Agate Bay without my knowing? Why would that shit have sent only three ships anyway? That’s not an invasion force.”

“No, Your Grace. I would say that’s a pursuit force.”

“Where did they go? What could destroy Darklaw ships?” Rook didn’t answer, so Avestine took hold of his tunic and shook him. “What could destroy everything?”

“Yes, everything. Every living thing stripped of flesh, fields filled with white bones, a feast for scavengers. That’s what witness-after-witness has said.”

“Animals? Animals did this? What are you saying?”

“The Wild has gone mad.”

Published in Darklaw |
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